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James Brandon Lewis Sows Raw Creativity on His Latest Album, 'Jesup Wagon'

Diane Allford

Saxophonist James Brandon Lewis drew inspiration for his latest album, Jesup Wagon, from some deep history at ground level.

The Jesup Wagon was a mobile teaching tool of the pioneering agricultural scientist and inventor George Washington Carver — a classroom on wheels used to instruct sharecroppers and farmers on best growing practices, often using raw materials. The outreach was so successful that it became a model for the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.

"Jesup Wagon is coming from a raw place, and I wrote it in a raw, spiritual kind of mood," Lewis says in this installment of Let Me Tell You 'Bout It. "And I wanted to reach people in the rawest, most organic level possible — even through the medium of the music industry. 'Raw' is synonymous with 'real,' and real should be a lifestyle."

WBGO's Let Me Tell You 'Bout It w/ James Brandon Lewis

Lewis' admiration for Carver might best be understood as a form of kinship. As a saxophonist and bandleader, he prizes individuality of expression, and has become an important voice on his instrument. His influences range from bebop to traditional and modern gospel, and certainly the avant-garde. He feels that the main point, always, is to reveal more of himself.

"When I pick up the sax, I better be myself"," Lewis says. "I don't say no to curiosity, and my agreed vibration is directly in line with the people I've been playing with."

The ensemble on Jesup Wagon, which Lewis calls his Red Lily Quintet, includes cellist Chris Hoffman along with bassist William Parker (who also doubles on gimbri), cornetist Kirk Knuffke, and drummer Chad Taylor. Although each member lifts the proceedings in his own way, the most moving quality of the program lies in Lewis' ability to create a richly melodic sound tapestry with strong forward motion. The album's title is a more than fitting description outlining these strengths.

In our conversation, Lewis outlines the importance of key mentors and collaborators including Parker, Wadada Leo Smith, Marc Ribot and Matthew Shipp; his evolving understanding of free-flowing creativity; and the importance of taking his art further into communities of listeners.

Jesup Wagon is available on Bandcamp.