January 7, 2017
James Brandon Lewis Trio
BNS Sessions 032
By Ken Waxman
Many talk about it and some have tried it. But it appears as if tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis could be the one who effects jazz-rap fusion. On No Filter his hard-hitting trio of bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Warren G. Crudup III manage to insinuate rhymes from P.SO the Earth Tone King – as well as the guitar of Anthony Pirog – onto a couple of No Filter’s tracks without upsetting the basic complexity and flow of the session. The pulse the rhythm section draws upon takes as much from hip-hip’s reach as jazz’s fluidity. However, like an athlete who trains for one sport and along the way develops proficiency in another, Lewis may be too good an improviser to settle for rap-fusion attributes
“Y'all Slept” mixes shattering guitar loops and P.SO’s rhyming free-styling to the group work, but despite chiming string sluices and parable-like statements, the focus is still on the saxophonist’s multiphonic timbre stretching which attains spiritual as well as strident levels. This shouldn’t surprise, since the Buffalo-born Lewis was associated with gospel savants like Albertina Walker as well as freedom seekers like William Parker. When tunes such as “Say What” and “Raise Up Off Me” attain critical mass, busy drum thwacks and solid bass lines back the saxophonist’s harsh tone stuttering that relates to Sonny Rollins’ tendency for theme variations displaying every tone as biblical scholars parse every syllable in the scripture for revelations. Lewis is at his most investigative on the title tune where he has the space to snarl and bend colorful variations onto the theme. Before the honking finale he also invokes Rollins preference for hoary melodies by interpolating snatches of “Shortin’ Bread” into his solo.
Not all of the CD’s fusion is as palatable though. The concluding “Bittersweet”, which adds Nicholas Ryan Gant’s affected wordless vocalizing to a heavy drum backbeat, is cloying enough in parts to approach Grover Washington territory before it literally fades away. Lewis’ fourth CD as a leader is laudable as he adds hip hop sentiments to free-form spirituality. But like a committed believer in a sinful world, he must filter out some concepts to prevent musical sentimentality from swamping otherwise admirable performances.
Tracks: Say What; No Filter; Y'all Slept; Raise Up Off Me; Zen; Bittersweet
Personnel: James Brandon Lewis: tenor saxophone; Anthony Pirog: guitar; Luke Stewart: bass; Warren G. Crudup III: drums; P.SO the Earth Tone King: MC; Nicholas Ryan Gant: vocals
—For The New York City Jazz Record January 2017