James Brandon Lewis: Days of FreeMan
Sony Masterworks

James Brandon Lewis's third album is being pitched as a “tribute to his hip-hop roots,” yet while Days of FreeMan is that, it's also a great deal more. Yes, the young tenor saxist does thread hip-hop-styled instrumentals and interludes into the nineteen-track album, but there's a generous amount of jazz playing, too, much as one would expect from someone steeped in jazz culture (a graduate of the California Institute of the Arts, the NYC resident has shared the stage with a number of jazz luminaries, among them Geri Allen and Wallace Roney, and worked with Alphonso Johnson, William Parker, and Marilyn Crispell). Though by his own admission Lewis “didn't grow up a hip-hop head,” he did grow up on Freeman Street in Buffalo where the sound of 1990s hip-hop was everywhere. In choosing to go back and explore that era in music, he helped prepare for the album's recording by immersing himself in hip-hop documentaries and albums by KRS-One, Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest, and Lauryn Hill.

Days of FreeMan isn't, of course, the first time a jazz-schooled player has rooted an album in hip-hop. Greg Osby did it in 1993 on 3-D Lifestyles, an audacious project for its time, and others, such as tenor saxist Gary Thomas, have attempted the fusion, too. But the fact that there are antecedents to Lewis's album constitutes no argument against his giving his own spin to the idea. He's joined on the hour-long date by drummer Rudy Royston and bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, and it's great to hear the Ornette alumnus, years removed from his Prime Time gig, in action once again. Both players rise to the occasion and respond to Lewis's every move, and there's a looseness and spontaneity to the trio's playing (something never more apparent than during “Boom Bap Bop”) that suggests the material wasn't laboured over but rather laid down with dispatch.

The trio format makes strong demands on its players, the leader most of all. In contrast to the quartet format, which grants moments of recovery to each front-line player, the trio soloist leads without respite, even if spotlights can be shared with the bassist and drummer. Consequently, the lead soloist must bring to the recording date no small amount of stamina as well as imagination (Sonny Rollins obviously the towering example). With the pressure on, the trio format also demands an inordinate level of confidence on the part of the lead soloist, and certainly there's nothing tentative about Lewis's playing on the album. One key advantage the trio set-up has over others has to do with mobility: it's far easier to shift gears midway through a track when three are involved than when more crowd the stage. By way of example, the album's longest cut, “Bird of Folk Cries,” sees the trio tearing through the material at a breathless clip, but the ever-agile Royston and Tacuma are up to whatever Lewis throws their way.

He explicitly nods to Digable Planets on “Able Souls Dig Planets,” a honking blend of funk and hip-hop sparked by a rousing sing-song theme and a tasty solo turn by Tacuma. As funky is the low-riding headnodder “Black Ark” and “Steelo,” a melodically intricate cut that could have been penned by Steve Coleman. The track that most recalls Osby's is the title track in the way it adds freestyle rapper Supernatural to the mix, though the interludes “Break I” and “Break II” also wouldn't have sounded out of place on 3-D Lifestyles. In a rare move on this largely uptempo album, the pace slows on “Bamako Love,” a dirge-styled ballad that backs Lewis's lyrical lines with wordless vocals. Reflections by a female elder (his grandmother?) surface in a number of the short experimental tracks to give the album a different twist, though it's her pronouncement in “Foreword” that speaks most powerfully to the project's personal vibe: “The best thing of living is living who you are. You can't be somebody else; you gotta be what God gave you to be and who you are. You look in the mirror and see yourself and say, ‘I'm James Brandon Lewis.'”

October 2015