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James Brandon Lewis crafts uncompromisingly challenging free jazz on Eye Of I

"Eye Of I"

Release date: 03 February 2023
James Brandon Lewis - Eye of I cover
21 February 2023, 00:00 Written by Janne Oinonen

Most of the ongoing jazz resurgence has focused on the genre’s more lushly contemplative spiritual aspects or gone all in on crafting contemporary electronic/organic hybrids for reconnecting with its roots as dance music.

New York-based tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis opts for a drastically different route: albeit diverse in its moods and modes of expression, Eye of I is ultimately driven by the untamed expression of seminal practitioners of often wildly caterwauling and uncompromisingly challenging free jazz. There’s a pretty major serving of skittish post-punk energy that hints at a more technically sophisticated twist on the jazzier participants in the loose early '80s No Wave underground noise movement on these tracks, too.

It doesn’t always make for the friendliest of listens: both brief opener “Foreground” and more extensively rattling and roaring “Middle Ground” find Lewis, drummer Max Jaffe and Chris Hoffman’s electronic cello (often overdriven to the point where it resembles a heavily distorted baritone or bass guitar) engage with the kind of thoroughly unruly, uncompromisingly chaotic skronk that’s fit to prove true the worst misconceptions of the more resolutely jazz-averse listeners.

Once the tempos settle and some semblance of rational order is retained, Eye of I proves a less gnarly companion. A gritty galloping but also an elegantly lyrical rendition of soul legend Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” – imagine classic jazz ballad beauty welded to brawny power trio dynamics- positively strains at the leash, teetering excitedly on the brink of chaotic overdrive while maintaining a seriously majestic and mournful momentum. Both this and the equally impressive (and aptly titled) “The Blues Still Blossoms” manage to sound austerely sparse despite packing an abundance of action, with a defiantly uncluttered presentation that most likely provides an accurate impression of what the trio might sound in full electrifying live flight.

The mournful, brass-blasted funeral march (with hints of traditional New Orleans jazz stylings) of “Even The Sparrow” is an even more alluring combination of high-energy howling and graceful melodic exploration. Featuring Fugazi offshoot The Messthetics, “Fear Not” closes the album with its most direct nod towards more rock-orientated dynamics: although the melt of post-punk and jazz works a treat, the track’s fleshier sound seems to belong on another album.

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