New York saxophonist James Brandon Lewis moves easily between past, present, and future jazz | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

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New York saxophonist James Brandon Lewis moves easily between past, present, and future jazz


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In the last few years saxophonist James Brandon Lewis has emerged as a versatile force, a musician fluent in the postbop spirit of Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane who can easily adapt his sound to a funked-up setting with heavy hip-hop vibes. I first heard the New Yorker four years ago on his impressive second album, Divine Travels; throughout that wide-ranging collection he oozes confidence while delivering fired-up soul in the esteemed company of bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver. He followed that effort with the neck-snapping Days of Freeman, where he’s powered by the nimble electric bass grooves of former Ornette Coleman associate Jamaaladeen Tacuma and drummer Rudy Royston, with occasional rhymes and beats provided by onetime Anti-Pop Consortium member Hprizm. Unsurprisingly, after two such adventurous albums Lewis’s tenure with the Sony-owned imprint OKeh ended, but his recent work proves he’s as curious as ever and even more focused. Flanked by rising D.C. bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Warren Trae on last year’s groove-oriented No Filter, his tenor became more cutting and ecstatic than ever, spewing licks that either explode into upper-register cries or descend with granite-hard low-end honks. Earlier this year he dropped Radiant Imprints (Off), a duo album with former Chicago drummer Chad Taylor. On that record he effectively comes to terms with his love for Coltrane’s music, abstracting some of his mentor’s most enduring themes into free-flowing dialogues with Taylor: “Twenty-Four” repurposes ideas from “Giant Steps” and “26-2,” while “Imprints” was inspired by “Impressions.” But though Trane’s impact on the music is clear, Lewis and Taylor consistently carve out their own space. In this rare Chicago performance Lewis leads a strong local band with cornetist Ben Lamar Gay, bassist Kent Kessler, and drummer Avreeayl Ra. The set is part of a free multiday festival presented by Constellation and Hungry Brain in the lead-up to the Chicago Jazz Festival, which takes place next weekend.   v

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