MOJO Rising: James Brandon Lewis

MOJO welcomes James Brandon Lewis, the new saxophone colossus keeping the world in balance.

James Brandon Lewis

by Andy Cowan |

SONNY ROLLINS, now 92, is usually reserved these days. But he told 39-year-old tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, “When I listen to you, I listen to Buddha, I listen to Confucius… I listen to the deeper meaning of life. You are keeping the world in balance.”

Lewis, predictably, was moved. “I feel blessed. He’s one of my heroes,” Lewis says today, battling a loud smoothie-maker in his local New York café. “What else do I need in my life after that? The few times we’ve talked, he never wants to speak about himself, he’s like, ‘I’m interested in what you’re doing’.”

Lewis, a minister’s son from Buffalo in upstate New York, has spent the past decade or so on an academic and spiritual quest, finessing a fat-toned tenor sax sound, comparable to Shabaka Hutchings or Kamasi Washington, and a lyrical quality that runs through his ever-changing catalogue. “I try to make music from the heart and lean on melody. I get closer to finding my artistic voice with every album.”

I’m trying to peel the pain off the walls when I play.

Much of Lewis’s latest album, Eye Of I, pitches his broad tones against Chris Hoffman’s treated electric cello and Max Jaffe’s drums. But it ends with Fear Not, a scorching trade-off with former Fugazi rhythm section The Messthetics. “I’ve always tried to make every album different, like a clarion call of, Here’s where I’m at,” says Lewis. “_Eye Of I_is about enlightenment, introspection, the way we perceive things. I’m always trying to make the music sound like it’s searching for something, for other answers. There’s no stone left unturned – I’m trying to peel the paint off the walls when I play.”

Ever since 2014’s meditative Divine Travels bumped up his profile, Lewis has oscillated wildly between releases. Yet it was 2021’s jazz-gospel-folk-blues mosaic Jesup Wagon, his tribute to early 20th century agriculturist George Washington Carver, that brought him to a wider audience.

“When I made Jesup Wagon I was re-exploring my old childhood experiences,” says Lewis, as heady and philosophical in person as he is on record. “Those song titles are not random! I read all his correspondence, his complete works – the bulletins he used to pass out on the Jesup Wagon [Carver’s mobile classroom he used to educate farmers]. The cover was something he actually drew. It was very thought-out. I was peeling back the layers of my psyche to get to the centre of things.”

A self-taught clarinettist, Lewis has a degree from Washington DC’s Howard University and a master’s from CalArts, where he studied under Wadada Leo Smith, Charlie Haden and Joe LaBarbera. The learning bug hasn’t left him. “Right now, I’m working on a PhD on Philosophy and Creativity at the University of the Arts. [The Roots drummer] Questlove picked me to get a scholarship. I’m really getting into metaphysics, semiology, Roland Barthes… no rest for the weary.”

For all his studies, Lewis is ultimately seeking transcendence through sound. “I got a lot of schooling, but jazz is a lived experience. That’s why we all like John Coltrane. He was an objectivist and a subjectivist – there was data but also feeling and intuition. You’ve gotta have a good mix of both.”

Eye Of I is out now via Anti-


●  For fans of: John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler.

●  Lewis developed “my own system of improvisation and composition called Molecular Systematic Music about 10 years ago. It’s a metaphoric system that draws correlations between molecular biology and music, to create your own artistic DNA.”

●  He’s worked with NYC jazz mainstays Chad Taylor and William Parker, as well as poet Thomas Sayers Ellis (in Heroes Are Gang Leaders) and guitarist Marc Ribot (on 2018’s starry folk odyssey Songs Of Resistance 1942-2018).

●  Ribot advocated for his label Anti- to sign Lewis. “James Brandon Lewis’s solos are like a jumbo jet,” he advised, “you need to give them plenty of runway space to take off and land.”


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