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By Sascha Feinstein
Tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis reunites with his Red Lily Quintet (cornetist Kirk Knuffke, cellist Chris Hoffman, bassist William Parker and drummer Chad Taylor) for a tribute to both Mahalia Jackson and his grandmother, who heard the legendary gospel singer live and introduced Lewis to her music. For Mahalia, With Love includes nine expansive takes on spirituals, and the selection of standards won’t surprise anyone familiar with gospel, including “Swing Low,” “Go Down Moses,” “Wade in the Water,” “Deep River” and “Precious Lord.” The exploration of these chestnuts, which average eight minutes in length, however, moves far from the genre and focuses far more extensively on free jazz.
Sometimes, as a result, the tunes come across as mere prefaces or springboards, especially those performances that do not return to the spiritual melodies and seem to burn out from exhaustion. But the fine interplay throughout cannot be denied. Parker, in particular, seems fully in his element; the addition of Hoffman frees him up to be a more prominent voice, but the bassist never fails to provide rich soil in which the others can grow. Knuffke isn’t a foil, exactly, for the leader, but his cornet sounds more like filigree compared to the aggressive brassiness of Lewis’ tenor. In general, the soulful intention of this tribute is unimpeachable, even if the overall experience may feel more wearying than uplifting.
A deluxe edition includes a second disc, These Are Soulful Days, featuring Lewis fronting the Lutoslawski string quartet. Commissioned by the National Forum of Music, the album’s centerpiece, “These Are Soulful Days,” comprises a prologue, four movements and an epilogue, presented here from the live world premiere and showcasing the saxophonist’s gifts as a composer and arranger.