There’s no easy shorthand for James Brandon Lewis’ musical M.O. Ever since his early releases — 2010’s Moments, 2014’s Divine Travels — the saxophonist has balanced a deep, gospel-informed spirituality with free-jazz abandon and hard-hitting funk-meets–hip-hop underpinnings.
“Sir Real Denard,” a track from his new album An UnRuly Manifesto, shows how adept he’s become at bridging different approaches. On one hand, it’s a fierce rhythmic workout driven by the tireless bass-drums team of Luke Stewart and drummer Warren “Trae” Crudup III, both of whom also appeared on Lewis’ 2016 effort No Filter; on the other, it’s a platform for some heady, avant-leaning improv from the leader, guitarist Anthony Pirog (who turned up on a couple No Filter tracks and also works with Fugazi offshoot the Messthetics) and trumpeter Jaimie Branch.
The piece begins with a simple two-note riff, layered over Crudup’s fleet, Stubblefield/Starks-esque beat. One by one, the members of the band take their turn at the fore, contrasting propulsive thrust with abstract grit. Stewart’s bass feature builds from crisp, in-the-pocket figures to weird squiggles of sound, while Pirog’s solo sounds like a nimble shred episode being swallowed up by a cloud of psychedelic noise. Branch offers up a fierce attack marked by static-y rasps, leading into Lewis’ own powerhouse feature, which combines R&B muscle with bebop agility. Eventually, all the players swirl their sounds together, hinting at and playing off the track’s central groove.
Like Radiant Imprints — Lewis’ outstanding 2018 duo album with percussionist Chad Taylor, which featured reinterpretations of John Coltrane’s work — An UnRuly Manifesto looks to the past for inspiration. Lewis writes on Bandcamp that it’s “an album dedicated to Charlie Haden & Ornette Coleman and Surrealism.” “Sir Real Denard” takes its title from one of Coleman’s given names (the musician was born Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman) and a play on the word “surreal,” a nod to Coleman’s involvement in the 1982 surrealist writing anthology Free Spirits: Annals of the Insurgent Imagination. Eminent bassist and frequent Coleman collaborator Haden taught Lewis at Cal Arts.
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But even a listener familiar with Coleman’s own long-running funk-oriented project Prime Time, whose sometime bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma appeared on Lewis’ 2015 album Days of FreeMan, wouldn’t be likely to peg this as an overt homage. As “Sir Real Denard” shows, Lewis’ aesthetic, like those of his heroes, contains multitudes.
Though it’s not stated overtly, An UnRuly Manifesto also honors another late figure: Mike Panico, co-owner of Relative Pitch, the Brooklyn label that released the album. Tragically, Panico committed suicide in October 2018, and Manifesto was one of the last projects he had worked on along with his label partner Kevin Reilly.
“Mike Panico believed in the power of music,” Lewis tells Rolling Stone in an e-mail. “He was super excited about this record and felt like it could touch many lives. His enthusiasm for music was intoxicating and that made me want to work with him. This is one of the last records he was able to put out, and for that I am thankful he believed, but the music is also a reminder of how beautiful he was as a person.”