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The innate cry of James Brandon Lewis’ tenor saxophone is the primal force that drives his splendid sixth album, Jesup Wagon, a reverently crafted homage to Black renaissance man Dr. George Washington Carver. Lewis’ cry traces back to slave songs and early country blues, with a more direct linkage to the groundbreaking tenor work of such iconoclasts as Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp. The cry summons rage, pain, sorrow, joy and love. Combined with Lewis’ formidable technique and imagination, it’s a potent force.
Lewis has crafted the ideal showcase: seven original compositions, all with an organic connection to the blues, gospel and Africa. Each track evokes one of Carver’s innovations, mainly in the field of agriculture, during his time as a professor at the Tuskegee Institute.
For a musician who was born and raised in Buffalo, New York, Lewis shows a natural affinity for the Deep South. His earthy melodies act as ideal springboards for gristly solos and collective improvisation among a stellar collection of fellow travelers: cornetist Kirk Knuffke; drummer Chad Taylor; bassist William Parker and cellist Chris Hoffman, who plays both pizzicato and arco.
The opening title track begins with a minute-plus solo-sax intro that morphs the cry into screams, wails, sighs and low guttural moans. A Taylor cymbal-crash kicks off a spunky New Orleans beat. Lewis and Knuffke briefly state a jovial parade riff then launch into free-rhythm romps.
On the other end of the spectrum “Seer,” a soulful lament, simmers along on Parker’s lean bass motif and Taylor’s minimalist percussion on the African mbira, laying a foundation for entwined tenor and trumpet solos. The plaintive melody of “Chemurgy,” played with purposeful imprecision by the two horn players, floats atop the rhythm section’s smoldering, Afro-tinged groove.
Jesup Wagon is named for the rickety, horse-drawn wagon on which Carver roamed the Alabama countryside teaching his agricultural breakthroughs. More than a century later, that work inspired music that adroitly blends Black history and consciousness with raw, primal emotion. — Eric Snider