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Disc review: James Brandon Lewis, Days of Freeman


James Brandon Lewis

“Days of Freeman”


Four stars

“I didn’t grow up a hip-hop head,” says James Brandon Lewis, “but where I grew up in Buffalo, New York, on Freeman Street, the sound of hip-hop was ubiquitous. I decided to go back and explore that time through music.”

Don’t look now but the most spectacular marriage of jazz and hip-hop yet just came from an utterly extraordinary young tenor saxophonist from Buffalo who, quite frankly, makes Robert Glasper seem anemic and academic.

He’s been living and working in New York for years but “Days of Freeman” is an extraordinary musical autobiography of growing up in Buffalo where Lewis remembers “times being filled with nicknames, block parties, street football and my older brother being the ‘deejay’ of the household while my mom would be yelling ‘turn that crap down.’ ”

Here is a musical memoir in four chapters, whose first chapter is called “Buffalo Braves.” It’s a formidable musical memoir in which we hear, all through it, tiny snippets of Lewis’ grandmother philosophizing and reminiscing about hearing Mahalia Jackson in her church and being free in her life because she was taught how to love by her parents.

There are references to Wilson, N.Y., where “my family would fish and have fun times there.” We’re told in the publicity for “Days of Freeman” that the saxophonist poured over “hip-hop documentaries for up to eight hours a day” and dissected “albums by KRS-One, Digable Planets, Pete Rock and CL Smmoth, a Tribe Called Quest, Medeski, Martin and Wood, along with fearless jazz trumpeter Don Cherry’s 1985 album ‘Home Boy’ and Lauren Hill’s 1998 Masterpiece ‘Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.’ ”

This is an utterly extraordinary disc – magnificently ambitious and completely achieved because of Lewis’ most important musical partners – drummer Rudy Royston and, most important of all, the late Ornette Coleman’s phenomenal bassist in his prime time band Jamaaladeen Tacuma.

Even if it’s semantic news to listeners that, as Lewis says, “ ‘You know my steez’ is a common phrase in hip-hop referring to style, to be, to be yourself, your swag, your person, your vibe, your flow, the way you operate and function,” Lewis’ formidable playing in a pianoless trio over Tacuma and Royston seems, as does the whole disc, to take off from Sonny Rollins and edge out into the nearer regions of the two ferocious Davids, Murray and Ware.

In his liner notes, Lewis’ co-leader of a group called “Heroes Are Gang Leaders,” Thomas Sayers Ellis, tells us, “The title of this recording could easily have been ‘Every Good Grandma Deserves a Jam Session or There’s a Riot-Horn Going On.”

No small achievement by Lewis in this absolutely remarkable achievement is Lewis’ ability to get SONY’s newly re-awakened Okeh label to understand that such a vehemently personal excursion into sound and memory and tenor saxophone line was a good idea in an era where “the music business” and “jazz” are routinely thought to be at war.

Here, the product of a childhood in Buffalo he wants to tell the world about, is an authentic and brilliant new hero of 21st century jazz.

– Jeff Simon

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