James Brandon Lewis‘ new jazz album, “Divine Travels” has the heart of a believer and the soul of a monk. This album has range, variety, and surprises that will take your breath away. It’s divine, for sure. It’s a journey for sure too. I came to know Lewis’ work through a program on NPR noting him as one of America’s up and coming jazz artists. I don’t think he’s up and coming. I think he’s arrived. This is Lewis’ second album and it’s beautiful. The ten tracks on this album are strong, richly layered, and unified by the magic of Lewis’ saxophone. All ten songs are written by the three musicians: James Brandon Lewis on saxophone, William Parker on bass, and Gerald Cleaver on drums. I hope this album gets a whirlwind of attention. It deserves it.
The album opens with “Divine” and closes with “Travels.” These songs create and kind of preacher’s greeting and gospel sending. “Divine” welcomes us. It’s built around a riff that is so delicate it’s haunting. It feels like an incantation, like there’s a spell being cast. Lewis’ sax moves from breath to strength and back again. Parker’s bass provides a sweet compliment– sometimes harmonizing, sometimes nearly off on its own. But it returns to support a kind of wild elegance in Lewis’ sax. This song starts our journey. “Divine” lives around that original haunting riff but it’s not repetitive. It’s foundational. This first song invites us on the journey and we know it’s going to be good.
“Desensitized” is the album’s second track. It too builds around an opening line that is melodic, almost minor. This song holds some of the most interesting interplay between bass and saxophone I’ve heard in a long time. It builds to a rapid flurry of short notes on Lewis’ sax, quick hits on Parker’s bass, and tight bites from Cleaver’s drums. This song, while not anxious, rises to a kind of chaos. It feels at one point like three people are talking at once– but then they all start laughing– musically at least. We know the varied vines of these three instruments are paying close attention to one another. They braid together a sound that’s interesting, lively, and lush.
For me, the high point on this album is “Wading Child in the Motherless Water.” Lewis does something remarkable here. He blends two spirituals we all know: the inviting “Wade in the Water” and the mournful “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” This work is truly masterful. All three, the bass, drums, and saxophone weave seriously. This song has a mission. You feel like you’re swaying in church. You feel the lament of the brokenhearted. This song is cross and resurrection both. It’s beautiful. I recently heard someone musing that in jazz improvisation, we come close to the mystery of God. While that’s a pretty lofty claim, Lewis does create something powerful here. I’ll be friends with this song for a long time.
Two songs on this album have poems living in them. Lewis artfully adds poet Thomas Sayers Ellis’ words and voice to “The Preacher’s Baptist Beat” and “Organized Minorities.” Ellis is a talented poet. His words surprise in twists and turns, like Lewis’ sax. These poems create a beautiful addition to this album.
“Travels” closes the album and it also has some of the finest, most intricate interplay between bass and sax that you’ll hear anywhere. It’s nearly a dialogue, without mundane back and forth. Lewis’ sax and Parker’s bass do a kind of dance. Cleaver’s crisp drums live right under the savory richness of Parker’s bass, which lives right under Lewis’ light but purposeful saxophone. This song closes the album with a sweet sound that approaches wildness, but is never out of control.
“Divine Travels” is a great jazz album by three musicians who know what they’re doing. Get this album. Listen over and over. You will enjoy traveling with James Brandon Lewis. I know I will enjoy these “Divine Travels” over and over. I already have.