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James Brandon Lewis taps into the spirit on 'For Mahalia, With Love'

Henri Selmer Paris

James Brandon Lewis has always been drawn to the divine: as a saxophonist, composer and bandleader, he reliably reaches for transcendence. So he took a special interest in the testimony of his paternal grandmother, who grew up worshiping in Baptist churches in the 1940s.

“She got to hear Mahalia Jackson in Buffalo when she was like six or seven,” Lewis says. “She came to her church. And I could tell just by the way my grandmother was describing it, that it had such a profound impact — not only on her, but on her whole generation.” He adds: “It felt similar to talking to elders who’ve told me they heard either Albert Ayler or John Coltrane. It’s the same vibe, the same spirit.”

Lewis has now carried that spirit into a new album, For Mahalia, With Love. Releasing Friday on the TAO Forms label, it’s the latest offering by his Red Lily Quintet, which features Kirk Knuffke on cornet, Chris Hoffman on cello, William Parker on bass and Chad Taylor on drums. Consisting of abstracted African American spirituals like “Wade in the Water” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” it’s a double tribute to Jackson, known as the Queen of Gospel Singers, and Lewis’ grandmother, who recently turned 86. Practically speaking, it also serves as a love letter to the Black gospel tradition.

This album extends a streak for Lewis, who just turned 40, and appeared on the June cover of DownBeat magazine The previous Red Lily Quintet album — Jesup Wagon, inspired by the life and work of George Washington Carver — was widely hailed as one of the top jazz releases of 2021. Earlier this year, Lewis released a trio album, Eye of I, on the stylishly eclectic ANTI- label. Yet another ensemble, the James Brandon Lewis Quartet, recently won the German Jazz Prize for “Band of the Year, International,” on the strength of work like MSM Molecular Systematic Music - Live.

“I’ve been really thriving, creatively,” Lewis acknowledges. “It definitely feels like a wave, and I’m riding it for as long as I can.”

His process on For Mahalia, With Love can partly be described as the art of translation: contemplating Jackson’s galvanic interpretations of hymns and spirituals, and attempting to redirect that energy in his own instrumental language. “She’d have a way of sliding into the note, with several little notes, or coming off and then clapping,” he says. “If you watch videos, she’s never clapping on one and three, or two and four. It’s always just in the context of the song.”

Lewis adds: “I was kind of just like, ‘OK, I don’t know if I’m going to transcribe that.’ But just immersing myself and getting the essence, and getting the feeling, and getting that vibe and emotional mapping. Spending time just closing my eyes, listening to how she would deliver the material.”

The fervent, rhythmically elastic musical language employed on the album has a clear precursor in the spirit-filled music of the 1960s jazz avant-garde, and in particular the music of Coltrane and Ayler — influences that Lewis acknowledges with a certain equanimity. “If you play the tenor saxophone, there are going to be certain players that are always going to be mentioned,” he says. “And if you’re playing music that has anything to do with God or spirituality, those two individuals — you’re going to confront and deal with them.”

“I was listening to how Kirk and I are dialoguing on ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’ for instance. And I said, ‘You know what? I did not want to sound like Albert, but the vibrato and what I’m doing to articulate the tune, and the way Kirk is playing, it’s as if we’re playing in that fashion.’ But that was not the intention.” The evocation was inescapable.

But that’s one implicit message in For Mahalia, With Love — the idea that love is partly about surrender. “I wanted to do this project years ago,” Lewis says, “but I was still in the process of being an artist.” Now, he adds, “I’m more comfortable with my voice. I feel more comfortable about my experience with the synthesis of ‘jazz’ and gospel music.”

He hastens to add that this album isn’t his final word on the subject, or the end of his exploration of Mahalia Jackson. “I’m still learning about her,” Lewis says. “One of the biographies I had a long time ago was called Just Mahalia, Baby. I have another one around here that’s more up to date. It’s just beautiful to see this continuum, you know?”

For Mahalia, With Love releases on Friday on TAO Forms.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.