James Brandon Lewis looks back, and forward, on Divine Travels

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James Brandon Lewis
Divine Travels (Okeh)

Sony Music revived the historic Okeh label—once home to Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Little Richard, among others—as its dedicated jazz imprint in 2013, and at first the prognosis was not good. Early releases from David Sanborn, Bob James, and an unusually subdued Bill Frisell suggested that Okeh would focus squarely on smooth jazz, but so far the label’s 2014 offerings are more encouraging. Ranging from the retro soul-jazz sound of saxophonist Craig Handy & 2nd Line Smith’s eponymous debut to the almost postrock approach taken by guitarist Nir Felder on Golden Age, they find Okeh broadening its focus—and, indeed, the definition of jazz itself.

The standout, however, fits nicely into the sax, bass, and drums template established by Sonny Rollins’s pianoless trio during the 1950s, and then elaborated on by Air, featuring Henry Threadgill, two decades later. On Divine Travels, relative newcomer James Brandon Lewis teams up with drummer Gerald Cleaver and heavyweight bassist William Parker in a three-way conversation that falters only when it detours into spoken word by Thomas Sayers Ellis on “The Preacher’s Baptist Beat”. Even that, though, sets up a darkly meditative journey into gospel music, “Wading Child in the Motherless Water”. Sometimes you’ve got to look back in order to move forward, and Lewis does just that here.

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