James Brandon Lewis Enlivens With Stacked Power Trio Of Sax/Violin/Drums on ANTI-Records’ ‘Eye Of I’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

The concept of a fiery, punk/garage trio that saxophonist and composer James Brandon Lewis employs on Eye of I, his eleventh album as a leader, fits in perfectly with the mantra of ANTI records, for which this is his debut. After the magnanimous acclaim for Lewis’ 2022 Jesup Wagon, the saxophonist was faced with a major challenge, answered by taking a different path altogether. As unconventional as a punk-jazz power trio might be, there’s another twist to this one. Instead of bass and drums, we have electric violin and drums. The electric violinist, Chris Hoffman, played cello on the previous album while drummer Max Jaffe is a new addition. In two words, this is about chasing energy.

Lewis purposely shuns the usual complexities of conventional jazz chords and forms in these varied eleven tracks, but careful listening will reveal traces of gospel and blues even though the usual structures may be absent. Like these current times, there are periods of dissonance and anger balanced with those of hope and resolve. He begins with a mere 44-second introduction, establishing a feisty groove to serve as a palette cleanser before his creative reimagining of Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” one of two that includes cornetist Kirk Knuffke. You won’t hear blues structures in his original “The Blues Still Blossoms.” Lewis, on tenor throughout the album, describes this peaceful, oft-meditative piece as blues after a hard day’s work that has nothing to do with the form. Yet, his horn certainly emits a huge dose of soulful, blues-like emotion, as he builds in intensity toward the end.

Then all proverbial hell breaks loose in the 47-second “Middle Ground,” something that the first three tracks left us unprepared for. We’ve gone from Donny Hathaway to Cecil Taylor in mere seconds. That segues directly into the foreboding sounds of the title track with Lewis and the trio in a highly aggressive, Coltrane-like spiritual mode with Lewis squawking and screeching to the prodding of Hoffman and the thunder of Jaffe.  Then we are plunged right back into the meditative, melodic strains of “Within You Are Answers,” beginning with a fairly simple melody, almost as if a piece meant for a vocalist before Lewis alternates free improvisational choruses with the theme twice within.  ‘Womb Water,” with Hoffman’s drone-like fiddle and Jaffe’s crashing cymbals, also gives Lewis plenty of explorative space wherein he again plays mostly lyrically with sustained notes, interrupting those flows with fiery, dissonant cries. 

The free-blowing interlude “Background” introduces the folk form “Send Seraphic Beings,’ a tune that as much as any bears Lewis’ signature style – deep, melodic, and spiritual elongated and oft repetitive phrases spiked with unhinged free jazz blowing.  “Even the Sparrow,” however, leans more directly into gospel, with the unison lines of the sax, cornet and electric violin creating blissful harmonics. Yes, even this one explodes into shrill, combustible sequences as it evolves. These ten pieces are a preamble of sorts to the explosive closer, “Fear Not,” where the trio plays alongside the postpunk group The Messthetics, a trio formed by former Fugazi members bassist Joe Lally and drummer Brendan Canty with guitarist Anthony Pirog. Lewis and Hoffman trade lines amidst the fury of two drummers, Pirog’s fuzzy guitar, and electric bass, and Moog from Shazad Ismaily giving it a thick, head-banging quality that runs in contrast to the ideas of space and change heard prior. Yet the seven sound seekers find an anthemic melody, after a beginning of restless chaos, reaching a surprisingly peaceful resolution. 

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