Essential New Music: James Brandon Lewis/Red Lily Quintet’s “For Mahalia, With Love”

For Mahalia, With Love is a record that gets down to fundamentals, but not just in the way that its title cues you to expect. Obviously, any interpretation of the music of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson is going to express the investigator’s relationship to Christianity, as well as Jackson’s role as a cultural force. Gospel music is bedrock stuff for tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, who grew up playing in church and whose grandmother received Jackson’s message firsthand and took it to heart. Plus, deep dives are what Lewis does; this is a musician who independently studied molecular biology and used what he learned to structure the compositions for his quartet. So, Lewis not only delivers the classic tunes that any fan of Jackson would want to hear, he works aspects of her phrasing and ornamentation into his own playing.

But Lewis also treats these themes differently than he did the original compositions he devised for the Red Lily Quintet’s 2021 debut, Jesup Wagon. On that record, secondary instrumentation brought vividness to an especially sharp set of new melodies. But the music of Mahalia Jackson wasn’t just for Sundays. Generations have used its messages as a guide to daily life decisions. Lewis handles them with the intimate familiarity of a person raised in that tradition. But he also approaches them as a jazz musician who understands that abstraction and reinterpretation are the essence of his art. So, these gospel melodies aren’t performed with set-aside reverence, but as raw material for rigorous improvisation and creative rearrangement, balancing their potential for spiritual intensity with their handiness as springboards for spontaneous creation in ways that might remind old jazz heads of Charles Mingus.

The Red Lily Quintet’s performance of “Wade In The Water” is in no hurry to get to the melody (which is taken at a surprisingly sprightly tempo) and spends an even longer time questing away from it. The arrangement sets up a sequence of probing solo statements by cellist Chris Hoffman and cornetist Kirk Knuffke. The instrumentalists take plenty of time exploring, then providing sonic commentary upon their fellows’ efforts, but only an exchange between bassist William Parker and drummer Chad Taylor echoes the interactions of a service in the manner that Mingus did on, say, “Better Git Hit In Your Soul.” For Mahalia, With Love isn’t just a collection of gospel classics; it’s the work of a highly charged jazz band getting down to business. 

A note for consumers: In 2021, Lewis performed These Are Soulful Days, a concert-length work that was commissioned by the Jazztopad Festival in Wroclaw, Poland. The piece includes some gospel themes arranged for tenor saxophone and string quartet. A recording of Lewis and the Lutoslawski Quartet playing that music is included as a bonus with the album’s Bandcamp and initial CD editions. 

—Bill Meyer