James Brandon Lewis, “Eye Of I”
By John Morrison · February 06, 2023

At its core, the improvisational dance that occurs between jazz musicians during a performance is a conversation. This rich and spontaneous act of communication is the beating heart that animates Eye Of I, the newest album from tenor saxophonist, James Brandon Lewis and his trio consisting of Chris Hoffman on cello and drummer Max Jaffe. The album opens with “Foreground,” a brief, head-bopping intro that pulls listeners into its swinging groove before dissipating. It’s the first curveball in an album full of unexpected occurrences.

With “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” the trio take on Donny Hathaway’s uplifting 1973 R&B classic. With lyrics written by his friend, Edward Ulysses Howard, the song’s heartfelt message of perseverance was intended to be a comfort for Hathaway who was struggling with his declining mental health. In the hands of Lewis and the trio, “Someday We’ll All Be Free” is transformed into a slow-moving march whose emotional tone hangs somewhere between mournful and reluctant optimism. Jaffe’s drumming here is particularly expressive, providing both rhythmic propulsion and sonic color, while Lewis wrings every bit of ache and joy out of Hathaway’s melody

From here the band slides into “The Blues Still Blossoms,” a slow, tune brimming with emotional depth. As the piece opens, Lewis states the main melody, before Hoffman echoes the statement and the two respond and play off one another with patience and grace. “Middle Ground” and the album’s title track “Eye Of I” push the energy up to dramatic extremes. On both tracks, Hoffman’s distorted cello cuts through the flurry of sound conjured by Jaffe and Lewis as the band reaches punk-like heights of volume and intensity. On “Eye Of I,” the trio’s ability to listen, improvise and respond even in the midst of such a hellacious flurry is impressive. The music here sounds brutal and abstract, but not arbitrary.

Throughout its 44-minute run time, Eye Of I makes a case that the communicative nature that has defined jazz remains strong among our best young players. By committing themselves to the practice of authentic, real-time musical expression, James Brandon Lewis, Max Jaffe, and Chris Hoffman walk each other through the creative adventure that is improvisation and come out the other side alive.


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