Words by David C. Obenour
2021 feels simultaneously very recent and worlds away.
For his part, James Brandon Lewis had a remarkable 2021 with the release of his acclaimed tenth album, Jesup Wagon. Inspired by the life and works of George Washington Carver, the album’s rich research and intent caught the attention of critics and contemporaries alike.
Then two years passed. The world shutdown, tried to reopen, shutdown again, and played through that cycle a few more times as scientists and everyone else tried to figure what to make of it all.
What Brandon Lewis made of it was a return to a striped down approach. A trio, banging it out, and letting energy take the lead. Eye of I is the culmination of that approach for an immediate and gripping collection of songs.
Off Shelf: Eye of I talks has been described as following a “punk-band-in-the-basement” credo of chasing energy above all else. What appealed to you about taking that approach for this album?
James Brandon Lewis: I think it’s an approach that really permeates throughout all my work. Chasing energy… playing as if tomorrow will end. The care and intention behind each note…
OS: You’ve also talked about the musical conversation of give and take and where that can lead. Performing as a trio, can you talk about what Chris Hoffman and Max Jaffe “give” on Eye of I?
JBL: As a composer getting a chance to hear the music that’s dwelling in your mind played is always a blessing, and I am thankful for that, and glad they were able to play on the record.
I think the music I compose lends itself to the musician being able to be who they are musically while presenting the melody as a point of departure or arrival to fresh ideas. Throughout the last 10 years having worked with William Parker, Gerald Cleaver, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, and Rudy Royston in trio settings, I think these earlier collaborations inspired things compositionally for me. Helped foster ways of seeing that I still draw from now. “Lament for JLew” from my album Days of Freeman, comes to mind when I think of the current sound and how I have developed further ideas from that time period.
OS: What was your “take” in this conversation? Was there anything new you discovered or explored further in the writing and recording of these songs?
JBL: Every album has a different process, I was inspired to bring back trio sound after taking a little time off while working on my quintet and quartet sounds. In a trio context, my melodic line is free to travel away from a harmonic instrument guiding me. Ornette Coleman is responsible for that. Like Jackson Pollock, Coleman freed us from the easel and gave us a wider canvas…
OS: Does the conversation also take place with a live audience? How do you feel an audience best observe or engage with a performance?
JBL: I hope they enjoy the experience of sound. The full range of human emotion.
OS: How does the void of not having an audience – and an even longer absence for the duration of the pandemic – influence recording in the studio?
JBL: I did not think about the absence of audience however I missed music and what it brings to an audience. Life played another tune and I had to sit and deal with that, the philosophy of the music of life and how might I survive and be able to live. So I figured it out, as everyone else have had to. I taught, studied, and most of all spent time with love ones. I wrote this music inspired by things opening up and most of all, bringing trio sound back.
OS: Some of the first songs you’re able to take out and perform live, do you have a different relation to them? Do you think it affects your playing?
JBL: I think art requires humility and truth. There is a certain vulnerability that for me is art… like not playing it safe but on its heels, on a tilt. I think it’s all one! Life presents challenges and beauty and the music becomes it’s sound track! My playing is always affected by life.
OS: You have two compositions on Eye of I that you didn’t write, “Someday We’ll all be Free” by Donny Hathaway and “Womb Water” by Cecil Taylor. Can you talk about why you included them and how you feel they fit in with the other songs that you composed?
JBL: Donny Hathaway attended Howard University where I also attend and I absolutely love his playing. I learned about his life while attending Howard. I have the great fortune of playing with William Parker who also played with Cecil… and I played this piece with Mr. Parker before, so I felt like it was a fitting tribute. I also felt these pieces together on an album would be awesome just for the sake of why not? These individuals have inspired me.
OS: Each under a minute and spaced throughout the album, can you talk about the significance of Foreground, Middle Ground, and Background on the album? What sort of experience are you working to shape?
JBL: That was inspired by a conversation I was having with Henry Threadgill [composer, saxophonist and flautist] about perspective in film. He was suggesting that I think about sound in that way and I was blown away! To think of a note as having a spacial reference, depth. How might a note fill the room, having a foreground, middle ground, and background. For the album they also serve as interludes of collective improv…
OS: There definitely seems to have been a desire to change focus and do something different following 2021’s critically acclaimed album, Jesup Wagon. Where do you find yourself restless to explore next?
JBL: I think I am always inspired to switch things up and keep myself and everyone guessing. Every musical situations presents an opportunity for me to get closer to my most authentic self. More science, spirituals, and sounds…