March Artist Feature: James Brandon Lewis

(Photo by Thomas Sayers Ellis)

James Brandon Lewis is a very versatile tenor saxophone player. Having studied at Howard University and later at CalArts, he has spent the past five years establishing a reputation for himself in New York. A fiery, yet soulful player, Lewis is involved in a number of cutting edge projects including his 2015 release, Days of Freeman, with Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Rudy Royston, some Dvořák-based arrangements for experimental marionette theater, and a large ensemble of jazz players and poets called Heroes Are Gang Leaders.

Lewis’ work with marionette theater is premiering this month at La Mama with 12 shows running Thursday to Sunday, March 10 to March 27. Tickets may be purchased here.

Lewis will be playing in a duo with drummer Chad Taylor at New Revolution Arts on May 14.

If you have not seen him perform before or have not done so lately, now is the time. Lewis is an artist with a lot to say and all of his projects are developing rapidly right now.

Interview

Cisco Bradley:    Let’s talk about your record Days of Freeman, which came out in mid-2015. With Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Rudy Royston. Did that grow out of the other stuff you were doing or was that a new direction for you?

James Brandon Lewis:            Well, I can see the thread in all of the work that I’m doing.

Heroes Are Gang Leaders allows me to be not only just a saxophonist but composer and allows me to explore different genres. And then the trio stuff, I’m more focused. A discography is a discography. I’m not trying to make the same CD. Every CD has got to be different because I’m constantly changing. We’re all constantly changing every day.

But the spirituality component exists in all the work I do. You know, from Divine Travels, we have “Wading Child in the Motherless Water.” And then, two, Days of Freeman, which is, you know, I can easily say that “Bird of Folk Cries” ties in that church gospel feel. It wasn’t a departure because I’m mapping my experience. I mapped my life. I lived on Freeman Street in Buffalo New York. I have an older brother who’s seven years older than me, he loved hip hop music. He still does. He’s a hip hop through and through.

I was a quirky kid. I wasn’t into hip hop. I mean, I have my groups that I liked but, I was the kid who I’m playing Boyz II Men one day, the next day I’m playing John Coltrane with Rashied Ali… Interstellar Space, the next day I’m playing, you know, whatever. I was a quirky little kid.

I wasn’t necessarily a hip hop kid  but I was inspired by my brother’s love for that music and I said, well, I wanted to capture that sound, like what did that sound like or what did I remember compositionally and not capture verbatim but checking out the groups that I remember hearing around the house, like A Tribe Called Quest  and Leaders of the New School  and…you know, Pete Rock and CL Smooth . All these different groups that I was hearing and my Mom being like, “Can you please turn that crap down.” you know?

So with Days of Freeman, I wanted to tell the story about my life as well as paint a picture of the music as well as give the listener more of a personal insight into who I am as an artist. I mean, that’s why I have my grandmother on the CD, who’s giving me a  lecture in the very beginning of the CD, telling me, “The best thing about living Bran is being who you are. You’re James Brandon Lewis. You can’t be anybody else.”

And that, for me, is also a reminder that in, out, about, I’m James. I don’t care who you associate with me – you think my music is this, you think my music is that. I’m just me and I create from that place of honesty and purity. It’s funny because life experience is a culmination of events. So to not make Days of Freeman is to not acknowledge all of who I am as a person.

Once again, this isn’t separate. And I’m not no egomaniac. I just know I’m examining myself. Most people don’t want to reach inside themselves to those places. They just want to create …

I could easily just have gone into the studio on either of these CDs or any albums that I created and just create some tunes and say, “Oh, these tunes are composed.” That’s boring. That’s no concept at all. It’s funny too because, not to get on what writers have said of what this was, but whatever vibration is speaking to me, that’s what I’m putting out. I don’t care what people have to say about it. If he was feeling it, cool. If he wasn’t, then it wasn’t for him. Period.

But it’s interesting, with Divine Travels… “very intellectual album.” With Days of Freeman, “Oh, it’s groove.” I’m gonna tell you right now, Days of Freeman was a lot of work. I watched a lot of documentaries on hip hop music because I was not a hip hop kid. So I had to remember that time and study different albums. Seeing how it’s laid out. For example, a lot of albums had interludes, especially if you’re talking about Leaders of New School or A Tribe Called Quest with factual little tidbits of wisdom. So I thought, wow, let me do that in my album.  And formatting it in a way that… that gave a nod and then…

It’s funny because to sit and listen to hip hop and be immersed in it while making this record … there are those who get weirded out by electric bass and, I don’t really care. I mean, I don’t. I have to honor the music that’s passing through me. If I don’t do that, then I am depressed. Then I have to live with myself in the mirror and think, wow, you weren’t being honest!

And so it’s interesting because that record… If you listen to “Boom Bap Bop” or “Able Souls Dig Planets” or if you listen to the “Epilogue” if you’re not a real hip hop fan, you’re not going to hear what I’m doing. I don’t make any proclamations. I’m not into self-proclamation. I ain’t discovered nothing. I’m not new. I’m not doing anything new and I’m not here to say that. Because at one point in history, it wasn’t the role of the artist to do that. You make the work and then the elders or the community agreed that you were maybe doing something. But the people that were doing it were doing it and studying and they weren’t stating, “I’m doing this. Look at me.” So, I’m not saying that I’m doing anything that is innovative or new. I will say that the newest thing and most renegade thing to do, is be you. We live in a world that wants you to be everything else but who you are. I make an effort to not recreate the past. I’m not trying to do that and I can’t do that it’s not who I am.

And the same freedom I felt on Divine Travels, when we’re talking about freedom, I feel on Days. It’s no different because I composed the music. It’s the same feeling. I feel free as far as what I’m able to do on the horn. I don’t feel inhibited. That doesn’t mean that I have mastered it. I hope I never master it. I hope I never master anything.

I was saying about this thing the other day when I was in the record store, I never want to master anything and I don’t want to be the authority of anything. I’ll leave that for the people who want to be that. For me, I’m just blowing air through a horn, a metal tube, and if I can be in tune with that vibration and in that freedom that Holy Ghost that always takes me to those places that are beyond words, then I’m good.

Divine Travels was cool but Days of Freeman … They’re both great. I’m proud of my work. It’s funny, too, because I read an article that said, “The hype around the album is that he studied.” What’s amazing is that narrative that’s out there, that’s true. It’s like I wrote that narrative. I’ve sat and watched 16 Bars in the art of rhyme, freestyle, scratch. I learned about so many different groups. The whole West Coast scene and what they were doing in the early ’90s. Really beautiful stuff. That’s how I ended up getting this rapper Supernatural in the album because I was watching one of these documentaries and he was describing freestyling and how he studies. I said, “Wow, he’s studying.” And then I could easily just draw those parallels. When somebody says they’re playing free, well, free is not without substance. You got to have something in your brain to come up with something. There is a spiritual realm that you can navigate in but I was just inspired by that he was putting knowledge within himself and then … So, the music is free in that moment, off the top, but it is not without putting information in your brain.

So I had a lot of fun making that record. And those people that are on both of those records, what can I say about all these people? They’re great human beings and great musicians. That’s the most important thing. I just want to keep making music. And when I’m given an opportunity to, I want to leave it on the bandstand. I don’t want no regrets. I’m trying to play with fire every time. I tell somebody, “You know, people can get a microwave dinner every day of the week. There’s no substance with a microwaved dinner. There’s no nutrients to a microwaved dinner. When you go hear these concerts, these different people and these things, you should expect the full course meal, with the best ingredients, you know, and people should walk out of there not entertained but moved.”

There’s a difference. Entertained is “Woohoo, I feel good.” and moved is “You know, I’m going to treat my wife better today. I’m going to treat my kid better today. I’m going to go and invite some people in my house who I know don’t have any money, don’t have any food and I’m going to make food. I’m going to make some dinner for them.” Because that’s what William Parker does. You know how many times I’ve been over to his house for dinner? And how many musicians him and Patricia really cared for? I mean, that’s real community. People be talking about community.

It’s the same thing with Heroes Are Gang Leaders. Thomas Sayers Ellis is a community person. When we talk about community, we’re talking about, “Hey man, did you eat today? Are you okay?… Cool. How’s your health? Good? You working?… Okay, cool. Maybe you should do this. Maybe you should check this out…. Okay, cool.” See, that’s substance.

Now, if there was only musicians, that’s something too. That’s something else. “Okay, cool… We got gigs.”  There’s a  professor who used to tell me when I was an undergrad, “Some of ya got gigs. I got a career.” I never understood that ’till I got older. When you livin’ gig to gig and you’re hustling and struggling and being in the city … I never talked about music as a career either. It was only until I got older bills started showing up, rent, real life stuff that I said “Wow, okay, I’m a professional. This is my career.” This is how I will pay these bills?  I always just viewed it something I love doing and that all the other stuff around it is what complicates it. So that’s it about that album.

Cisco Bradley:    I know you are an avid reader. What have you been reading these days?

James Brandon Lewis:         I’ve been reading about Dvořák … I got the book with me because I’ve been working on this Marionette project. And I got Dvořák to Duke Ellington by this guy Maurice Peress And he’s actually a conductor of the Queen’s College Symphony. I’ve been working with the Czech-American Marionette Theatre in telling the story of Dvořák coming to America in the late 1800s. The brilliant thing about this book by Maurice Peress is that he worked with Duke Ellington and he also was Leonard Bernstein’s assistant. The basic premise of the book is Dvořák was brought to America by Jeannette Thurber, who was in-charge of the National Conservatory of Music, to breed the American sound. And so out of that, you had Ellington’s, Gershwin’s, and Copeland’s teachers studying with Dvořák. He gives examples of William Marion Cook, who’s a violinist and who’s Duke Ellington’s teacher, one of the first prominent black composers.

So, I’ve been working with this project and that’s been taking me a lot of different directions. And I’ve checked out the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and then that took me to just a lot of different places. I was also reading Howard Thurman. He has a really beautiful book called Deep River and it documents spirituals. He’s a theologian who was basically Martin Luther King’s mentor. He was one of the priests at Rankin Chapel at Howard University. And he also was in Boston too.

And Marian Anderson, My Lord, What a Morning. I was reading that. It’s an autobiography. That story’s interesting because she used to perform spirituals at the end of her pieces. So, anyways, all of this stuff relates. I end up being able to draw parallels between everything and then my music becomes informed by it, so it’s really cool to be involved in different things.

Cisco Bradley:    So how did you get involved in the Dvořák project?

James Brandon Lewis:            Basically, Roy Campbell, amazing trumpet player, passed on and he was supposed to do this. And this company has existed for 30 years in New York and they had asked him and … and before that, William Parker had also worked with this company and  he recommended me. Yeah, it was really crazy because, Roy was one of the first people that I interacted with when I came to New York.

I think the most fascinating thing about this project in general is that it was nice for me to hear a European composer in the late 1800s acknowledging that your music … the source material for your symphony, well, it’s here.

Now, spirituals were already going on before he got here. The Fisk Jubilee singers had already made their appearances in Europe. So, you know, he didn’t discover the spirituals. But, very fascinating that he was able to say the kinds of things that he was saying, given the time period of, you know, your source material for your symphonies are African-American spirituals and Native American music. And I’m always about the source. I learned this from Wadada Leo Smith, who was my teacher at CalArts. “If you want to know something, you go to the source of the information.” So I’ve been enjoying reading this book because I know that this person is close to the source of the information because he worked with Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein’s assistant. And Leonard Bernstein, one of his teachers was Copeland. It’s a cycle of interaction with Dvořák. He still has a lineage of composers that he respects and studied with who have connections with Dvořák. Aaron Copeland’s teacher studied with Dvořák. That’s what’s fascinating: you see these lines of history.

In doing this, Dvořák project, I learned a lot about myself and about a European composer giving props when props weren’t really being given out.

If I was a student and I was told that as a kid just think about the impact that would have, where you’re learning as an African American and you’re not feeling like the outsider but an equal part of the conversation. But then to learn about William Marion Cook and Paul Laurence Dunbar composing the first African American Broadway show.  So you had Paul Laurence Dunbar, William Marion Cook, you had James Weldon Johnson. And then William Marion Cook, his godfather was Frederick Douglass.

So then you have Dvořák who spent 2 ½ years in America, through his travels he found the Czech community in Iowa… Spillville. He visited the Chicago World’s Fair—at the Chicago World’s Fair.

Cisco Bradley:    1893.

James Brandon Lewis:            Yeah. And that fair, specifically, they didn’t have a tent for African Americans. But a Haitian Pavilion where Frederick Douglass would speak. And so, you have William Marion Cook there, Paul Laurence Dunbar was there – all these people that history normally separates. But once you read, you start to understand how it’s all connected.

I basically said all that to say that it’s been helping me feel like this is a different journey. For me, because I’m not always dealing with this material, it is refreshing to look at the New World Symphony or his opera Rusalka or American String Quartet F. I’m not always doing it so then I have my own take on it. I’ve been working with them for at least a year and some change now. But we’ve had the premiers and rehearsals in the last couple months. We’ve been talking about the script and the language being used and played. So it’s been cool.

Cisco Bradley:    So, you have 12 total performances happening between March 10 and March 27. Can you tell us more about the specific performances?

James Brandon Lewis:            I will have my trio with Luke Stewart and Warren “Trae” Crudup (video here). The performances are at the La Mama. And we had two previous shows already at the Bohemian Hall. La Mama is experimental theatre.

Basically, what I’ve been doing is fragmenting the symphony throughout the script. I’ve also taken some of the little germs of ideas within the compositions, like the American String Quartet or New World Symphony or Rusalka and making arrangements or original compositions off of that, as well as playing spirituals because he was influenced by that. And there’re bits and pieces of different genres, like rock and hip hop and… because we want to show a continuum. We want to show that why he was brought here actually that the dream that Jeannette Thurber had in her mind actually came true. For the most part, music specifically generated in the United States. African Americans have a lot to do with most of that sound, of what that music is.

Cisco Bradley:    The music you’re performing is with your trio with Luke Stewart and “Trae” Crudup? How long has that group been together?

James Brandon Lewis:            Well, I’ve known Luke for four years at this point. Four or five years. I just recently met Trae … The group itself has been together maybe a year and a half. I met Luke playing with Ras Moshe at the Brecht Forum about 4 years ago now. And I immediately thought, “Wow. Okay, who’s this guy?” I liked his spirit.” Thought his fingers looked like Jimmy Garrison’s.

Cisco Bradley:       Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me about your work. It’s been a true pleasure to hear about the variety of the very different projects you have in the works right now.

–Cisco Bradley, March 2, 2016