Essential New Music: James Brandon Lewis’ “Eye Of I”

Like many suddenly ascendant artists, James Brandon Lewis was around for quite a while before he broke into wider public consciousness. The 39-year-old tenor saxophonist from Buffalo, N.Y., released his first album in 2010, and he’s been making statements as both a leader and side person ever since. In every context, Lewis’ stout tone and tug-your-heart vibrato make an immediate impression.

But the closer you listen, the more you hear; this is a guy who applies lessons learned by studying molecular biology to the practice of composing for a jazz quartet, and he makes it all hang together so cohesively that you don’t need to know about the sources to get lost in the music. Take his breakout recording, 2021’s Jesup Wagon, for which Lewis convened an all-star ensemble to realize a cycle of compositions inspired by the life story of George Washington Carver. While it certainly doesn’t hurt to care about the subject matter, you don’t need to know about it in order to appreciate the album’s synthesis of uplifting melody, ingenious orchestration and abundant energy, as evidenced by the breadth of its critical acclaim. (MAGNET named Jesup Wagon the best jazz/improv album of 2021.)

The next step after the big one is also one to watch. Lewis signed to Anti-, a label equipped to raise his profile beyond the bounds of jazz, and Eye Of I has qualities that may make it the right record for that moment. Its electric sound and intimations of classic-soul melody cut straight to the chase. The band, which includes cellist Chris Hoffman and drummer Max Jaffe, raises a ruckus that draws not only on the flexible trio language that Lewis has employed throughout his career, but also a blasting power-trio sound that will speak to old punks who never sold their SST LPs.

Eye Of I wastes no time making its intentions known. Opener “Foreground” takes just 44 seconds to introduce the album’s bold mixture of amplified strings and electronically reinforced beats. Its successor, a cover of Donny Hathaway’s “Some Day We’ll All Be Free,” conveys Lewis’ emotional commitment to the tune, which he articulates in imploring unison with guest cornetist Kirk Knuffke. The program that ensues veers between roaring, wild rides and more delicate articulations of blues-steeped, structurally elegant form.

The album closes with blues processional “Fear Not,” a collaboration between Lewis and the Messthetics, a jazz-rock band that includes the Fugazi rhythm section. It’s a canny crossover move, but also an organic one, since Messthetics guitarist Anthony Pirog is also a longtime Lewis associate. A few years back, Pirog and late, great trumpeter Jaimie Branch joined Lewis on Unruly Manifesto, a record that celebrates Lewis’ old teacher, Charlie Haden, as well as the surrealist movement.

“Fear Not” ends Eye Of I on a door-opening note. Lewis is moving toward musical possibility, and it sure doesn’t feel like a chore to follow him wherever he’s headed next.

—Bill Meyer