James Brandon Lewis

Divine Travels

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Though jazz, gospel, and pop musicians have been familiar with saxophonist and composer James Brandon Lewis for some time, Divine Travels, his sophomore album, should extend his circle of admirers. His 2010 debut, Moments, formally married his significant background in both the gospel and jazz worlds; it was eclectic, but uneven. By contrast, Divine Travels is much freer, more expressionistic. His gifts as a composer and democratic improviser are more readily exposed. The caliber of his rhythm section, bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver, doesn't hurt either. Divine Travels walks a loose line between spiritual and avant-garde jazz and post-bop. Opener "Divine" is a modal ballad. It's tender and thought-provoking as Lewis lightly touches on Coltrane's "A Love Supreme." Parker's use of tone harmonics underscores the saxophonist's ingrained lyricism. Lewis' tone is warm and inviting, more rounded than edgy. This is true even in tunes such as "Desensitized," with intense improvisation woven throughout. He communicates with -- not through -- his collaborators, in the same way Wayne Shorter does. "Tradition" is based on a swinging blues figure. Cleaver sets a pace for a melody that moves through African-American musical heritage and evokes everyone from Ellington to Dorsey, from Monk and Wonder to Winans. The set's longest cut, "Wading Child in the Motherless Water," weds spirituals "Wade in the Water" and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," yet creates something entirely new from them. Parker's fat, wood-toned grooves provide a guiding spirit as Cleaver's trademark fluidity is combined with circular rhythms. Lewis' tenor harmonically extrapolates the root that exposes the sacred determination in these tunes through his 21st century musical language. "A Gathering of Souls" is a sprint, full of charged, knotty soloing by Lewis and energetic interplay by the rhythm section. The melody is extended, creating a near-bop dynamic before it breaks free of the mold and just goes. On "Enclosed," Parker expertly combines expressive arco and pizzicato. "No Wooden Nickels," with its African rhythms played soulfully by Cleaver, combines modal jazz and gospel. Two tunes contain spoken word poetry by their author Thomas Sayers Ellis. Lewis' band plays with his fingerpopping cadences, not behind them. Divine Travels is a sophisticated jazz record with gospel ingrained in every tune; it's spiritually, musically, and emotionally communicative, revealing Lewis at a key point in his creative evolution.

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