James Brandon Lewis
Photo: Diane Allford
James Brandon Lewis On Evoking George Washington Carver Through Sound, The Wisdom Of Nature & His New Album 'Jesup Wagon'
Jazz history is full of musicians immortalizing people through sound. John Coltrane did it with "Cousin Mary" and "Syeeda's Song Flute." Miles Davis did it with "Back Seat Betty." Charles Mingus's "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" is a eulogy for the tenor giant Lester Young. The problem is that if we couldn't flip over the LP and read about it, we might never know—and tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis is well aware of the gulf between music and PR copy.
While paying homage to agricultural scientist and inventor George Washington Carver on his new album, Jesup Wagon, Lewis conjured his essence and wrenched it from his horn. Even if you might need to read the bio to get who he's driving at, there are more profound forces at play. Even as he interpolated spoken word to illuminating effect, Lewis told a story in a way language never could.
"I'm trying, I'm trying, I'm trying my best to evoke a deeper thing," he tells GRAMMY.com.
Getting on Carver's wavelength meant digging deeper than the aspects most people learn in public school, like his 300-plus uses for the peanut. Lewis more than did his due diligence, poring over Carver's correspondence letters and bulletins for farmers as well as a litany of biographies of the man. Want to read about Carver yourself? There's plenty of literature out there. But Jesup Wagon, which came out May 7 on the up-and-coming TAO Forms label, can help you feel his presence.
Far from dry history lessons, Lewis' wrenching compositions like "Lowlands of Sorrow," "Fallen Flowers" and "Experiment Station" may act as first steps to lifelong education on and communion with the historical figure. Most importantly, Lewis has a monstrous sound on the horn. Plus, he has simpatico accompanists in the Red Lily Quintet, which consists of cornetist Kirk Knuffke, bassist and gimbri player William Parker, cellist Chris Hoffman, and drummer and mbira player Chad Taylor.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Lewis over Zoom from Switzerland—where he's already plotting his next album—about his journey through a Black genius's universe and his place in the pantheon of the saxophone.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
You clearly had such a vision for Jesup Wagon, and I can't think of a way you fell short of executing it. How did this idea germinate, and would you consider this album your breakthrough?
Definitely. All the parts kind of fell into place. I definitely didn't have any intention, initially, during this COVID period, to do anything to mark the time period. Just because of personal stuff. Losing family members and different things. Not feeling like creating work was necessarily the right thing to do just because people were losing their lives; people were losing work.
But then, eventually, I was like, "I can't sink my own ship. I've got to be strong for other people." So I just started creating music. This came about very organically. The label reached out—for Whit Dickey to have the courage to start TAO Forms during COVID is like, "OK, cool." [They asked me,] "James, do you have anything?" "Sure, I do."
I'm always creating and thinking about the next thing and the Carver project [and my interest in him] was something that had been on my mind for quite some time. So I thought, "Why not?" Maybe people will gain a little bit more insight into him other than, like, "He's the peanut guy." These kinds of watered-down notions of him. Which happens over time to people. I don't think it's done in a malicious kind of way.
And then, the cast. It's everyone that I've worked with over the years. I've only worked with Chris Hoffman once, but that was good enough. It's interesting because when you create, you don't know what the response is going to be. I thought, "This sounds like some pretty good music," and I put my best foot forward with every project, but you don't know which project is going to resonate with people the most.
I'm sure you've done innumerable interviews about George Washington Carver at this point. I'm interested in the tension between the music and the press kit—how you can evoke someone through sheer sound without necessitating that the listener read the one-sheet.
For me, it was a natural process. The older I get, the more I reflect on my past. Just growing up and being interested in many different things. Reading Emerson, being interested in science and jazz. I was just this kind of kid. Now, as an adult, the most authentic or original ideas I can pull from have to be from thinking about my own personal experiences.
In two years, I'll be 40. I think I have a little bit of life that I can talk about. So I think in choosing to do any project, I'm fully immersing myself in being in history. Checking out the bulletins he made for farmers. Checking out several different biographies as well as correspondence letters. Seeing clips of him on YouTube. Fully immersing myself gets me in tune with a little of his vibe.
The more I dig in, the more I feel like it may translate. How it resonates in my soul, I can map that and remember that feeling and then pick up my horn and proceed to play, remembering the feeling of a passage he said or his exchanges with Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee [Institute].
All of these different things and also the idea of him going against the grain in science when that's not necessarily the field [where] you're supposed to go against the grain. You're supposed to be all factual. He's presenting spirituality and telling people he's talking to the plants and they're letting him know what's going on.
It's always a challenge when you're playing music. To have a concept and then [wonder], "OK, well, it's instrumental music. Does it translate?" I think when you immerse yourself in a topic … It's no different than if I was writing a piece and I wanted to evoke, maybe, what love feels like. That's just knowing the characteristics of how to paint emotion with particular sounds.
That's up to the listener, but I feel like I'm in tune with his spirit, with his vibe. As you say, away from any PR or whatever. Any of the PR or any of the things that are out there is stuff that I've disseminated about him in the most truthful way. It's just like my dealings with Robin D. G. Kelly [who wrote a 2009 biography of [Thelonious Monk.] He's such an amazing writer. I've had a relationship with him since, like, 2016, when my No Filter project came out with my trio.
He was familiar with the process of me choosing titles and knowing that the titles were not just random. They kind of guide you. He was able to depict the titles in a really beautiful way that is truthful. They're based on me reading his correspondence letters and checking out his documents. A lot of real research.
The music is one aspect, but to firmly immerse yourself in something is another thing. I could easily come up with a song and call it "The Peanut"; I don't know if that would be that interesting. I'm trying, I'm trying, I'm trying my best to evoke a deeper thing. The musicians help that, too. It's not a bad crew to work with!
James Brandon Lewis. Photo: Diane Allford
It's a co-creation. You've got the best minds on it! And I think I understand now. You don't need to be able to materialize a person, somehow. You're not writing a book. You're just manifesting Carver's essence in an emotional or spiritual way.
Right. Does it relate to someone on an emotional level? Even when I'm listening to it—which I rarely do after I record it—I go, "Yeah." If I hear "Experiment Station," just visualizing George Washington Carver with students, the newness, the childlike behavior of discovery [mimics exuberant melody] then it's like "Wow, this is about to take me somewhere." It's also just about the contour of the line and how you shape things. Descending, the overall arc of things.
Hey, if it can also reach people emotionally—I'm at a place now where I'm like, "Let me play it for my family." If it resonates with them, then, cool. I think I'm OK. I'm on the right track. If Grandma's movin' and groovin', then that's a good sign.
How did Kelley come into your life? What a great asset.
I had released [No Filter] on a small label called BNS Sessions. He just reached out to me and said he enjoyed the album, and we sparked up a friendship. I also got involved with reading other books he was involved in, [like 2009's] Black, Brown & Beige, which was a surrealist anthology that he edited. That book specifically was influential on the UnRuly Manifesto project I did in 2019.
It's just been a healthy exchange. He's been to some of my gigs. We just sparked a real vibe. I'm thankful. He wrote some ace liner notes.
What tools were in your toolbox while making Jesup Wagon? Which artists were swimming through your mind?
I think I naturally draw from the canon of great saxophone players, just because I listen to them. But for this sound and vibe—I initially wanted to have a kora player on this project. That didn't quite work out, but then, I said, "OK, William Parker plays the gimbri. Chad Taylor plays the mbira. If I get a cello, then we have this earthy [quality]."
Me and Kirk [Knuffke], we definitely have similar interests in terms of all the great Ornette Coleman vibes and tunes. Just the way he plays and I play and we interact with each other, that's definitely a headspace in the ether. Strings, horns, no harmonic instrument, drums.
I definitely feel like I'm in the lineage of a lot of different players, but I don't know if I was thinking of that, necessarily, other than trying to convey the music in a way that felt connected to the tradition. The Coltranes, the Aylers. The Ornette Colemans. The Dewey Redmans. That vibe. Julius Hemphill. All these folks who have these different ensembles. The cello and bass.
My introduction to cello happened in 2009. I was at Banff [International Workshop in Jazz & Creative Music] and I met [cellist] Hank Roberts, who plays with Bill Frisell. And then, later on, I met [composer and cellist] Tomeka Reid when I got to New York. It was a natural progression of sounds.
And then, William Parker! He's also a huge influence [on my] sound. He's had a lot of different ensembles with a lot of different kinds of instruments and things. And Chad Taylor, who's worked with Pharoah Sanders and [tenor saxophonist] Fred Anderson. I think there is a sound universe. I definitely feel like I lean toward a lot of different influences.
James Brandon Lewis. Photo: Diane Allford
All in all, you may not be able to build a person out of sound, but you can push a hole in the universe and something might come out the other side. Who knows how Jesup Wagon will cause a ripple effect in global awareness of Carver and his contributions?
You know, it's interesting, because I've had different people from Alabama, from the South, who listened to the record, and they're like, "Wow. You really evoked this. We knew Carver when we were kids, growing up in this specific area. This is amazing." That's always a really cool thing. It's nice.
It also manifests itself, because I was just a kid who was curious about this individual, as I am with many other people. We'll see what happens, but I'm glad people dig the music. I don't think this is just a one-time [thing]. I don't know if I'm creating Carver, Part Two, but I will continue to study him. It's manifesting in my own life. He, as an individual, definitely got me thinking about nature. Maybe [making me] a little more concerned with nature as opposed to "This is over here and I'm separate from it and I'm so sophisticated." Caring about it, thinking about it. Contributing to it in a way that's healthy.
Maybe a seed is growing inside me to get some plants of my own and appreciate them. Especially during this time period, it seems like nature is the most calm and sophisticated and knows how to conduct itself.