James Lewis’ “Jesup Wagon”


LEWIS: Jesup Wagon. Lowlands of Sorrow. Arachis. Fallen Flowers. Experiment Station. Seer.* Chemurgy / Red Lily Quintet: Kirk Knuffke, cnt; James Brandon Lewis, t-sax; Chris Hoffman, cel; William Parker, bs; Chad Taylor, dm/*mbira / Tao Forms TAO 05

This CD featuring rising star saxist James Brandon Lewis was one of Jazz Times’ top 40 jazz albums of 2021, so I thought I’d check it out. Lewis, who is 38, has been playing in New York for several years and has been compared to Albert Ayler; on this recording, his band also includes famed bassist William Parker, who played with Cecil Taylor for 11 years.

Although there are some similarities between Ayler and Lewis, I’m happy to say that I find the younger saxist’s playing more musically coherent. He has, to my ears, a better sense of musical structure and line, and although he does play “outside” quite a bit, it makes more sense. the other musicians in his quintet are also exceptional musicians, particularly cornetist Kirk Knuffke, and his is one of the very few jazz groups to include a cello since the days of Arthur Blythe (whose playing I also liked very much). If anything, the Red Lily Quintet’s music sounds more influenced by Ornette Coleman’s small groups than by Ayler’s, and that’s fine by me.

What puzzled me, however, was the album’s title and the fact that it seemed to reference George Washington Carver. Of course I learned about Carver in school: he was one of the most brilliant botanists of all time, the man who found something like 50 different uses for the peanut, but what was a Jesup Wagon? I had to go online to find out. This info comes from “Extension,” the website of Alabama A&M and Auburn Universities:

The Jesup Agricultural Wagon was first used by noted Tuskegee Institute scientist and teacher George Washington Carver in 1906. It was a mobile classroom that allowed Carver to teach farmers and sharecroppers how to grow crops, such as sweet potatoes, peanuts, soybeans and pecans.

The wagon’s name originates from Morris Jesup, a New York banker, who financed the project. However, it was Carver himself who designed the wagon, selected the equipment and developed the lessons for farmers. The earlier model was a horse drawn carriage that was later replaced by a mobile truck. Regardless of how it ran, this successful outreach model was widely adopted by the United States Department of Agriculture. Mobile vehicles continue to be modeled today by organizations like the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

Carver’s Jesup Wagon

So now I know, and I’m glad that Lewis’ recording title brought it to my attention. As for the music, it is suitably hectic and excitable, particularly the opening title track, but if you think this is hectic, there’s a live performance of it (and several other numbers from this album) on a YouTube video that makes the recorded version sound tame.

It’s interesting to hear both a cello and bass in the same group, and often playing together at that. I don’t recall having heard this before. When Oscar Pettiford played cello in a recording band in the late 1950s which had Charles Mingus on bass, Pettiford would solo like a jazz horn while Mingus played standard rhythmic bass, but here we encounter Hoffman and Parker actually playing together in what amounts to duo-bass passages.

One reason why I single out Knuffke for praise is that he seems to “ground” the quintet tonally, particularly when Lewis goes out on a limb. Yes, you can play too radically at times, but having someone to pull you back from the ledge is exceedingly helpful. The rhythm section creates a nice, loping rhythm in the second half of this piece, ostensibly suggesting the lope of the Jesup Wagon as it rolled through rural Southern neighborhoods.

Lowlands of Sorrow is set to a 6/8 rhythm, opening with Parker’s bass playing a repeated four-bar lick in D-flat minor before the horns and drums enter. Although Lewis has a rich tenor tone, it is a vibratoless, tubular sound, much like those of Rollins or Coltrane, except that at times his sound has more of an “edge” to it, a bit of a rasp which he adds or removes as the spirit moves him. On this track, after his solo, he repeats a brief motif underneath Knuffke’s solo, then indulges in some honking which, to be honest, didn’t interest me much, but overall his playing and that of the group as a whole is splendid. Arachis begins as a ballad, and a very doleful-sounding one at that, the opening theme stated by Lewis and Kunffke over Parker’s bowed bass, and surprisingly Hoffman’s cello comes in as a third voice to create a sort of canon, but then all hell breaks loose as the piece suddenly increases in tempo, volume and tension and Lewis’ tenor goes haywire in a series of blistering atonal figures. layering one on top of the other. And this time, when Knuffke re-enters, he is not a calming influence but rather joins the fray with excitable atonal figures of his own. Ditto Parker when he enters on bass, redoubled by Hoffman’s cello, as drummer Chad Taylor creates an environment of cymbal washes, followed by a solo using his full drum kit, including playing the rims of his shares with his sticks.

Indeed, this pattern of starting a tune “normally” and then rending it asunder seems to be the modus operandi of the Red Lily Quintet as Fallen Flowers also contrasts a nice melodic line with a jittery motif in what appears to be a 9/8 rhythm, and in fact as the piece develops it is the latter that dominates the musical landscape. Interestingly, this piece’s repeated motif seems to have a somewhat American Indian feel to it. As the album goes on, one begins to feel that this is a sort of a suite, the most structured and interesting piece in it being titled, ironically, Experimental Station, though even here the opening melodic line is blown up by Lewis’ frantic playing.

To be honest, although I liked much of what I heard on Jesup Wagon, I had some reservations. Lewis simply had a few too many moments where it just seemed that he was splattering notes up against the wall to see which ones would stick, and although I like some of that once in a while, I don’t fell you can make it a basis of a jazz style. It doesn’t so much show me your knowledge of musical structure as your disregard for it. But who knows? Lewis may yet mature into a more coherent player in the years ahead. Nonetheless, Jesup Wagon is an interesting experiment, and one certainly has to credit him with being an exciting artist with integrity.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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