James Brandon Lewis is engaged with a search for freedom. A modern tenor colossus, his early work – such as 2014’s rewarding ‘Divine Travels’ – displayed incredible technical skills, but felt too neatly tied to the past. Often placed neatly in that Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane lineage – admittedly, the Mount Rushmore of the tenor saxophone – his subsequent work has found the instrumentalist breaking free of their gravitational pull.
Displaying an admirable work ethic, ‘Eye Of I’ is James Brandon Lewis’ fourth album in four years, and it’s charged with a stunning sense of energy. Veering from spiritual jazz aspects through to post-hardcore’s physical attack, he seems to be shaking off preconceptions, adopting an almost genre-less approach to improvisatory music. ‘Foreground’ opens with that staccato drum attack, the saxophone unrelenting in its urge to communicate. ‘Someday We’ll All Be Free’ wrestles with this question of independence, the melody timeless yet the instrumental placing entirely new.
Indeed, ‘Eye Of I’ is thrilling in its desire to unsettle. A kind of jazz adjacent, or jazz-but-not-jazz record, it finds room for deep-dives into African-American history – ‘The Blues Still Blossoms’ ripples with melodic intent – alongside the titanic punk skronk of Messthetics enabled closer ‘Fear Not’.
Capable of veering off into the red, ‘Eye Of I’ is also marked by restraint, and a certain melodic assurance. ‘Within You Are Answers’ feels endlessly beautiful, James Brandon Lewis swapping abstraction for the sort of tonal clarity you’d usually associate with the human voice. Yet there’s darkness here, too – ‘Even The Sparrow’ is laced with ominous dark tones, the Elvin Jones-esque drumming abandoning the centre to chaos.
The work of an artist caught in perpetual voyage, ‘Eye Of I’ is marked by acceleration. James Brandon Lewis seems to chew through ideas at a frenetic rate, absorbing everything he can before spitting them back out. An inspired listen, it stands as a wonderful achievement not only in jazz, but in African-American improvisatory arts more generally.
Words: Robin Murray