Tenor saxophonist and composer James Brandon Lewis has resoundingly moved beyond mere “rising star” status over the past couple of years.
It began with his breakthrough 2021 album, “Jesup Wagon,” a tribute to inventor and agricultural pioneer George Washington Carver featuring Lewis’s Red Lily Quintet and liner notes by renowned historian Robin D.G. Kelley. “Jesup Wagon” topped numerous critics’ lists of best jazz albums of the year.
More recently, his James Brandon Lewis Quartet received the 2023 Deutscher Jazzpreis award as International Band of the Year in April, and earlier this month DownBeat began landing in subscribers’ mailboxes with Lewis on its cover. The accompanying story touts two new projects — a forthcoming tribute to gospel great Mahalia Jackson with the Red Lily Quintet and the trio album “Eye of I.” Lewis is also completing a doctoral degree on his theory of “molecular systemic music” at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts.
Lewis has been busy touring as well, and in August — a few days ahead of his 40th birthday — he’ll perform music from “Eye of I” at the Newport Jazz Festival, joined by Chad Taylor on drums and Josh Werner on electric bass. It’s a rare opportunity to see him perform regionally; the last time he came through Boston may have been in 2016, when he played a loft concert with Kidd Jordan in Somerville, at which Jordan did a dazzlingly free solo performance of “Body and Soul.” (Jordan died last month at age 87.)
“I do remember that,” enthuses Lewis via Zoom from a friend’s Brooklyn apartment just ahead of a tour of Europe. “That’s one of my all-time favorite Kidd Jordan memories. Because the way in which he played, I never heard anybody play like that.”
Lewis’s own work on tenor sax is similarly compelling, exuding a deep spirituality. No less an expert than Sonny Rollins once told him: “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.”
How Lewis employs that sound on his various projects is itself a balancing act. There’s the cerebral side exemplified by what he refers to as his molecular quartet, formed in 2020 to put his molecular systemic music concept into action. Lewis, who earned degrees from Howard University and California Institute of the Arts en route to his doctoral studies, describes his theory as viewing music through the lens of molecular biology.
There are the outward-looking projects with the Red Lily Quintet (with Kirk Knuffke, cornet; Chris Hoffman, cello; William Parker, bass; Chad Taylor, drums), both of which involve personal ties to historical figures and Lewis’s native Buffalo. The connection to George Washington Carver that led to “Jesup Wagon” stems from summer visits to the Buffalo Science Museum, which he explored while his mother, a science and social studies teacher, prepared curricula for her students.
“For Mahalia, With Love” was inspired by a conversation with his grandmother “who was telling me that she had heard Mahalia Jackson in Buffalo when she was like 6 or 7 years old. She made it sound like it was the most amazing concert. So naturally it sparked my curiosity, because I’m always trying to find my own stories.”
The stories on “Eye of I” are more inward-looking, the pandemic having inspired introspection and simplicity. “Every now and then,” Lewis explains, “I like to throw these reminders that exploring yourself and exploring your own stories is valid.”
Where “Jesup Wagon” consisted exclusively of seven Lewis originals and “For Mahalia, With Love” will have arrangements of nine gospel classics, “Eye of I” (with Hoffman on cello and Max Jaffe on drums) contains a wide-ranging mix of nine Lewis originals and two covers. The former include the frenzied title track; the meditative “Within You Are Answers”; the loping “Send Seraphic Beings,” which in its more intense moments seems to seek external help; the hymn-like “Even the Sparrow,” inspired by the Mahalia Jackson favorite “His Eye on the Sparrow”; and the unconventional blues “The Blues Still Blossoms.”
“I was just renewed,” says Lewis of how the new pieces came about, “and thinking about how the eyes being the lamp of the body, thinking about perspective and birth and the idea that the blues can still blossom without being in time.”
The covers include Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” and Cecil Taylor’s “Womb Water.”
“Donny Hathaway went to Howard University,” observes Lewis. “Then there’s a humorous side of me which is like, ‘Well, how often are you going to check out an album and it will have a Donny Hathaway tune and a Cecil Taylor tune?’ So why not?”
NEWPORT JAZZ FESTIVAL
Aug 4-6. At Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I. newportjazz.org/tickets
Bill Beuttler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.