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James Brandon Lewis: Jazz, Spirituality, and the Art and Science of Musical Abstraction

James Brandon Lewis: Jazz, Spirituality, and the Art and Science of Musical Abstraction

Courtesy Dave Kaufman


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The healthiest way to think about it for me is having a foot in the past, a foot in the present, and my mind in the future. That's the only way I feel like I can navigate this thing without going completely crazy. I feel like I've put enough hours on the horn to know that what I'm doing sounds nothing like Coltrane or Albert Ayler. I only know that because I'm listening to them and being honest with myself.
—James Brandon Lewis
The contemporary jazz world is currently witnessing an artistic renaissance, characterized by an upsurge in creativity and innovation. This movement is fueled in part by rising stars such as Joel Ross, Immanuel Wilkins, and Isaiah Collier, as well as seasoned veterans like Charles Lloyd, David Murray, William Parker, Joe Lovano, and Bill Frisell, whose creative passion remains vibrant and fires undiminished decades into their career. However, much of the surge in innovation has been driven by artists who are entering their mid-career phase, having already crafted a significant body of work and forged distinctive musical voices. Among these influential figures are Mary Halvorson, Ambrose Akinmusire, Kris Davis, and James Brandon Lewis. These artists are known for pushing the boundaries of jazz and opening up new avenues for creative expression.

James Brandon Lewis has distinguished himself as a luminary in the modern jazz landscape, celebrated for his deep command of the saxophone, unique composition approach, and the profound spirituality that permeates his music. In 2021, James reached a pivotal point in his career with his tenth album, The Jesup Wagon (Tao Forms, 2021) inspired by the innovative educational initiatives on agriculture by George Washington Carver. The album weaves together elements of gospel, folk-blues, and vibrant brass ensembles, earning widespread critical praise and being honored as Album of the Year by Jazz Times, Downbeat, and several international jazz magazines. This acclaim affirmed Lewis's place as one of the most important artists of his time. Sonny Rollins, a towering figure in the jazz pantheon, has offered Lewis the following effusive praise: "When I listen to you, I listen to Buddha, I listen to Confucius ... I listen to the deeper meaning of life. You are keeping the world in balance." Lewis's standard of excellence has continued with two outstanding releases in 2024, Transfiguration (Intakt Records, 2024) and The Messthetics and James Brandon Lewis (Impulse, 2024). This is James' story.

All About Jazz: Most readers of All About Jazz will be quite familiar with you. But why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself, whatever you'd like to share.

James Brandon Lewis: I'm originally from Buffalo, New York. I left home when I was 18 or 19, which is a little over 20 years ago. I spent a year at Buffalo State, beginning my undergraduate studies. Most people don't know that, but I finished my undergraduate degree at Howard University, in Washington, D.C.. From there, I went out to Colorado for a little bit. My dad was living out there. I also briefly spent some time at Lamont School of Music in Denver. I eventually earned my master's degree from California Institute of the Arts. I was in Cali from 2008 to 2010. Well, actually, from 2008 to 2012, but I finished my master's in 2010.

AAJ: Let's pick up on that. It is an excellent school with many great people on the faculty. I read that you had worked with Wadada Leo Smith and Charlie Haden.

JBL: That's correct.

AAJ: Can you talk a little bit about your experiences.

JBL: Let me explain the background about how I was made aware of CalArts. I graduated from high school in 2001. My mom surprised me and took me and my siblings on a cruise. I went to a jazz club every night on the cruise ship. I wasn't really interested in everything else but hearing the music. I met a tenor saxophonist by the name of Kelly Corbin. I would hear him every night on his cruise ship and thought he was an amazing player. I still think he's an amazing player. I kept in contact with him, and over the years, we developed a friendship. My last year or just after my last year at Howard, he contacted me just to see what I was up to. He was telling me that he was at the California Institute of the Arts. I was like, wow, what's that? I guess he heard in my playing that I was be a bit more bebop centered. (I hate all these "genres"/labels.) That makes sense just because I was at Howard. So, he said, well, it's not exactly a bebop centered school. I said, oh, okay. And I didn't know what that meant at the time. But I said, well, that sounds cool. Then I started doing some research on the history of the school and learning about not just Charlie Haden and Wadada Leo Smith but Joe La Barbera and other faculty.

JBL: I started to learn with Charlie Haden, Wadada Leo Smith, Alphonso Johnson, bassist for Weather Report, and Joe La Barbera, the last drummer to play with Bill Evans. You have Vinny Golia. I mean, just the list goes on and on, Darek Oles, Larry Coons, an amazing, amazing faculty. I was thoroughly impressed. I had applied back in 2006, but I didn't get in so I ended up going to Colorado and got to spend time with my dad. After a brief time at the Lamont School of Music, I felt like I wanted to try CalArts again. As a matter of fact, when I tried it a second time, they didn't remember that I had applied the first time, which was cool. I got in and I feel like that was the turning point for me. At 25 years old, feeling like I could really, truly express myself artistically. In addition, the school allowed for original compositions.

In Colorado, I played jazz on a weekly basis. I also sat in with big bands and went to jam sessions and all that kind of stuff. But I was also doing gospel music, something that I had been doing since I was nine, just playing in church. I had joined a church out there and was playing gospel music full time, three or four services a week. By the time I got to CalArts, everything was up for grabs. All of my experiences were encouraging. I thought, wow, this is amazing. I had a graduate assistantship where I had to lead an ensemble, and that was cool. Then, there were faculty ensembles. One semester I was with Alphonso Johnson. The next semester, I worked with Joe La Barbara. Wadada was on sabbatical during my first year, so I got the chance to play and work with John Lindberg for one set of weeks. And then, in the second set of weeks, I got to work with Famoudou Don Moye, and that was amazing.

I also took Charlie Haden's class every semester with the exception of one. So overall, that experience was very healthy for me. The environment was very encouraging. It was something that I needed at the time. I definitely needed encouragement. It was just so much music. There was a world music program there. When I was a jazz studies major, students were required to take Ghanaian drumming. They had a master drummer from Ghana, Alfred Ladzekpo, who'd been there since the 70s. So, it was really steeped and rich in varied influences and many different styles of music you were exposed to every day. I really enjoyed that experience and I have a healthy reverence for that school.

AAJ: I lived in Berkeley in the late 1990s, and CalArts guys would come up and play in various Bay area venues. Right. There was an interesting scene. Do you know the Yo Miles (Shanachie, 1998) album with Wadada and Henry Kaiser?

JBL: Yeah, I know that I'm familiar with that record.

AAJ: I was fortunate to see them twice, and they rank among the best concerts I've ever seen. I also saw the Vinny Golia big band at Yoshi's, and they were just awesome.

JBL: I took composition lessons with Vinny.

AAJ: Vinny doesn't come to the East Coast very often, I don't think. I know he played the Stone several years back.

JBL: He was here recently. But I was out of town. He played Roulette a couple of months ago. Vinnie, talk about a thinker. He was a visual artist first. I was always fascinated with how Vinny thinks. It takes a particular mindset to learn all those instruments that he knows how to play. I've always been fascinated with what people are playing. But I'm also fascinated with what people are thinking about conceptually when they're learning.

AAJ: It's a really interesting question.

JBL: Yeah.

AAJ: Just to take one step back. So, growing up in Buffalo, you left at 18. You probably had limited exposure to clubs and Buffalo musicians, but were you connected to that jazz scene?

JBL: I don't know if I had limited exposure. I mean, Buffalo is rich with all kinds of music. So, every Sunday after church, my mom would take me to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and they would have jazz on their lawn, especially in the summertime. Or we would go to the Buffalo Science Museum, which was actually across the street from my church, and we would go hear jazz there. And I started saxophone lessons. I had lessons in public school. I went to a magnet school, Buffalo Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts, from fifth grade to 12th. My teacher, a saxophone teacher outside of school, was a gentleman named Carol McLaughlin. Then we had all county band... we had all these things. So, I was very much familiar with the scene. I mean, there, if anything, it was more so that I had other priorities. I played in school all the time, after school, and in church.

I might have been like 15 or 16 when I first went to a club. Then it's hard not to be connected. For example, when you say connected to a scene, well, that's kind of hard to say because Buffalo is like a little big city where if I don't know someone, my mom went to school with their parents. I still have a lot of extended cousins living in that city. My mom was also strict, so I wasn't old enough to go to clubs and play at the clubs. I didn't have that kind of situation. But, I really developed a lot of my skill set. Well, I can't say I was playing since I was a little kid, so I don't.

AAJ: It was very important in your formation.

JBL: Yeah, it was important in my foundation. I was recording in studios when I was 17, and then I had a gospel instrumental group when I was, in seventh or eighth grade. I was always active and engaged with music. Although I was not playing in clubs, I played a lot of functions—a lot of different things.

AAJ: You were featured in the New York Times article about a year ago. And the title caught my attention. "James Brandon Lewis, a Saxophonist who Embodies and Transcends the Tradition." I think that is sort of a very telling description. On the one hand, you're somebody who's deeply steeped in the tradition, yet you've evolved your own vocabulary.

JBL: Well, yeah. I'm familiar with this article. I think that was 2022. Well, first of all, it's not up to me to decide how the world views me. I'm still trying to figure it out as I'm on this journey. The other day I was reflecting on... When I was nine even before I was nine, I was always interested in music and always around music. My mom wasn't a professional. But she definitely could sing. Given the opportunities, she probably could have been a singer. But life has its narrative. First off, I have always loved music just for music. Not the theory. I just loved music. Just to escape into this world. I was reflecting and trying to remember what my childhood room looked like the other day. It was like a jazz museum. I would say I was kind of a nerdy kid. In the sense that I loved being in my room. It was like my little sanctuary.

I remember the front door to my room. First, there was a Grover Washington, Jr. Poster because he is from Buffalo. So you enter the room. My keyboard is to the right, and then you're looking straight at a big picture of Charlie Parker. I was thinking about this quote by Victor Hugo that I had on my wall. It says something like, "Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent." Then I had a painting of John Coltrane. I had a lot of really cool things. I had an uncle who used to order magazines for me when I was nine. No matter of fact, when I was eight, he would order me these magazines, including Downbeat, Jazz Times, and Saxophone Journal. So those were underneath my bed. Those were like my comic books. I would imagine what it would be like to be on a bandstand and playing all these different festivals. I was always immersed in the music.

I would say that I have the full continuum. I went to Howard with an emphasis on the tradition. At Howard, that's the kind of music we were doing there, including Thad Jones-Mel Lewis, Benny Golson, Eddie Henderson, so on and so forth. Then I went to CalArts, where Charlie Haden with Wadada Leo Smith, and others taught. So, I feel like I have reached a point where I went through the progression that students go through. I'm still a student, but it's moved into other areas. I have a love for music, like transcribing and trying to figure out what people are doing and trying to figure out my instrument, reading charts and having copies of the fake book, and then going through a phase where there is no fake book. Maybe I'm just going to cop some stuff off some albums. Every phase of my life has been different. A different way of learning and processing. I feel like one day, I had just decided that I no longer knew how to be other people. I wanted just to figure out who I was.

AAJ: But I think, if I'm not mistaken, that's very much coextensive with having a reverence for the tradition and the greats and fully embracing and assimilating it into your own thing. I think that's been a continuity in your work.

JBL: Yeah. I definitely agree with what you're saying. There are these unspoken things that are not talked about, and it's like you're in a battle with the past. Either you just decide you're going to be yourself, or you're forever going to be chasing something that you cannot be. The kind of external conversation that comes with (the terrain). It's almost like there's this unspoken thing of having to ask permission from the past to be yourself. And when you reach a certain point, like if you can do x, y, z, now you can be yourself. I don't know if at this point in my life—I'm 40 years old. I don't know if that makes sense to me because people are dying younger. And I feel like the healthiest way to think about it for me is having a foot in the past, a foot in the present, and my mind in the future. That's the only way I feel like I can navigate this thing without going completely crazy. I feel like I've put enough hours on the horn to know that what I'm doing sounds nothing like Coltrane or Albert Ayler. I only know that because I'm listening to them and being honest with myself.

JBL: It's not to say that I'm above or below them. As best I can within my skill set, I'm not doing what they are doing. So, when I hear or see things that are written in which the conversation is always framed in a way that my voice can never be heard outside of that unless I meet the criteria of these unspoken variables. I moved to New York in 2012. I was 28 years old. If you didn't hear me playing before I moved to New York. And you weren't living in Denver. You weren't living in D.C., and you weren't living in Buffalo. Then you kind of missed my progression. You missed me playing in big bands. You missed me playing in jazz clubs. You missed it because I knew who I wanted to play with when I got to New York. I knew there was a certain level of maturity in my thinking. I just had a different path. I'm sorry you missed it. You missed the two years I was playing at the cancer hospital in Colorado, playing standards for patients who just came out of chemo. You missed it. I don't know if I answered your question.

AAJ: Mean, yeah.

JBL: I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Like, when is it? When is it okay to actually be yourself? Like I'm being myself regardless because I decided.

AAJ: I think we live many lives.

JBL: Mean, yeah.

AAJ: A couple of things come to mind. So, one as a listener I experienced that. Right. So maybe my favorite kind of jazz, if I have a favorite because I listen to the gamut across decades. I'm not a musician, but I've been a jazz fan since I'm 16 and been a music geek all my life. I have this conception of certain musicians who straddle the boundaries that can go either way, very comfortable playing music that we could call "in the tradition" from a listener's vantage point. David Murray, JD Allen and many other saxophonists beautifully straddle those boundaries. They could take it in any direction. They have a rich, full-bodied sound that I recognize as having elements of Trane, Sonny Rollins, and other great masters of the past. That's how I hear it. I'm not in their shoes, and I can't say what they're experiencing. And that, to me is a rich panoply of musical options really. It offers a great listening experience.

I'm happy to listen to people who take it further out without the same reference to the tradition. I'm also happy to go to Smoke and hear people who fully embrace hard bop and are squarely in the tradition.

JBL: Right. But you know what? I agree with you. And I feel like the one thing that I haven't. That I'm actually proud of is that I still listen to music for enjoyment. And no matter what my training, ... I'm the kind of person that listens to music. And when I'm listening to music when I was in class and someone says, oh, did you hear that? And everybody's looking around. Yeah, that was cool. And I'm like. Wow, I think I missed it because I wasn't listening for it.

AAJ: Yeah.

JBL: I've always only listened to music from this emotional vibe, but I think that's an interesting thing that you bring up. That I think about, like where is. I'm not saying it isn't a happening. I'm not listening to what everybody is doing. There's no way to really know what everybody is doing. But when I think about the David Murrays or the Dewey Redman's or Sam Rivers or, Thomas Chapin,

AAJ: Glad you brought him up.

JBL: Yeah. He's someone who is rarely mentioned and Bill Barron, or Jimmy Lyons. There's a lineage that blurs the lines. And there's a part of me that feels like that lineage is... I would put James Carter, in that lineage. George Adams, you know what I mean?

AAJ: Yeah. All great players. Maybe even Archie Shepp.

JBL: Archie Shepp too, facts! These players are just completely blurring the line, right? I feel like there's to a certain extent that's kind of gotten lost with school. I feel like although I'm not an authority, I mean, having gone to school since I was nine, I kind of know the conversations. I've been at every level of this school thing, and I feel like those lines kind of get blurred or not blurred, but that there isn't any room for that. You're either this or you're that. That's what I appreciated about CalArts the most is that you could be listening to Frank Lowe, Frank Wright, and at the same time you could be talking to Joe La Barbera about Frank and then the next thing we would be playing a Buddy Collette piece. It was that kind of vibe, that kind of experience where. It was all healthy, a healthy reverence for what I would call the full continuum.

AAJ: Absolutely

JBL: Over Covid, we were all stuck indoors. Okay, so what was I doing with my time? I got on this Teddy Edwards kick and listened to everything. Teddy Edwards and learning about what he thought about. I read an interview by Ted Panken. He asked him, "Well, what do you think about chords?" He said, "Well, I don't think about chords in the way that most people think about chords. I call chords 'sound bodies.'" I said, "Wow, man—that's hip. Sound bodies!" He said, "Yeah, you come up on a chord, and you just pick a note that you like and then keep it moving." Of course I'm paraphrasing. Then I got into Sonny Criss, and then after Sonny Criss, I got on this Wardell Gray or Teddy Edwards all day. That doesn't necessarily mean...

AAJ: ... you're going to play like that.

JBL: Well. It some of it might still creep into my playing, unbeknownst to me. Some of it might still creep into my playing. But I'm not trying to be any of those players I just listen to. When I was an undergrad, I used to transcribe all the time. However, I've accepted that whatever comes out of my horn is me.

AAJ: This is a bit left field.

JBL: Okay, cool.

AAJ: I think of Teddy Edwards as kind of a romantic player. He had a real romantic strain in his playing, particularly in his later years. When I was listening to Transfiguration, especially on a couple of tracks, I hear something of a romantic strain in your playing. Does that resonate with you?

JBL: You mean just the whole thing together?

AAJ: I mean particularly a couple of tracks on Transfiguration, like the title track.

JBL: Okay. What's interesting is that there have been moments in particular, especially the molecular stuff, where, there's definitely a maturing that's happened with this, with me playing with this ensemble. Everyone in the band is older than me. Which was a conscious decision. I wanted to play with people who I knew were more seasoned than me, better than me, who could push me with my own music, with my own thought process, with my own working. And they do exactly that. And so, I felt like, with Molecular Code of Being (Intakt 2020) and now Transfiguration, with molecular systematic music that I wanted to show a side of me that isn't always represented on my other recordings. On the other hand, I can point to examples where I'm playing—I guess you would say, what was the word you used? Romantic.

AAJ: A lot of the great tenor players...

JBL: Yeah, but when you say romantic, that's not necessarily a term that I disagree with. I reflect often when J.D. Allen came out with a whole ballad record, A Love Stone, it sounded of today. It was really remarkable and it says something about your playing when you can do that. But to play, for instance, "Trinity of Creative Self," it's difficult to be intimate because intimate is not the thing. People want to hear fireworks!

AAJ: Yes. Yeah.

JBL: People want to hear fireworks. I think I've played enough fireworks and recordings where I'm beginning to think about the old cliche, less is more.

AAJ: Sure. I know exactly what you mean. I mean, you definitely bring the fire.

JBL: Yeah, but I but it's interesting because I think you and I listen in a similar fashion. Sometimes, when I listen to it. I don't know, like when I'm in the process of making a record, I'll listen to it a bunch. And I'll listen to it while it's out. And then afterward, I won't listen to it for a long time. And so. I think that there is a healthy distance. I've gotten to a healthier place with where I'm at with the horn and what I'm trying, how I'm trying to communicate on the horn. And so, I think your perception is pretty accurate.

AAJ: That's good. That brings me to this is we're just sort of following one riff a little bit. Many contemporary jazz artists are forward-looking in the sense that they're always composing, and they just about never perform any of their older compositions. Do you have the opportunity, like with MSM, to reach back to the first album?

JBL: Yeah, I mean, it just depends. Like, tomorrow I'm headed up to Boston, and I'm doing a two-day residency at Berklee. It had me looking back at a few of my older pieces because I will play with the students. I don't feel like there's anything wrong with playing any of the stuff that I've already made. This past summer, I got a band together; we went overseas, and I brought out the Unruly Manifesto (Relative Pitch Records 2019) music. It was me, Kirk Knuffke, Anthony Pirog, Ches Smith and Shahzad Ismaily. It felt good to play that music again. I mean that music only got one European run and a few performances in New York. I think we played the Vision Fest one time and we played Winter Jazz, but that was about it.

AAJ: I thought that was a breakthrough for you. I love that album. I don't know if you saw it as a breakthrough for you. You might see everything as more of a continuity, right, as being part of your journey.

JBL: Right?

AAJ: But it seemed like everything was elevated on that, like the compositions—It's like you moved into a different sphere, and I thought that was just a magnificent recording.

JBL: Yeah, I definitely have a healthy reverence for that album. Putting that album out went through a lot of different changes. Some unfortunate things happened. May they rest in peace. Some people who were helping to put that album out had passed away before the album came out. That was a challenging album.

I mean, I can understand why you say that. I think that was. In that album, in particular, I heard every part. My favorite piece is "The Eleventh Hour." I heard every part from the bass to (guitarist) Anthony (Pirog) and then to me and (trumpeter) Jamie Branch. I heard every piece. So not to say that I hadn't heard every piece on other albums, but this was with greater clarity. But at the same time, I mean, if you go back to 2010, when I was writing more chords, I think that album, that one album kind of shows where all the other albums are going to go. I mean, there's hip hop on that album...

AAJ: This is Moments (James Brandon Lewis Music, 2010)?

JBL: Yes, Moments, the album that no one can find.

AAJ: It's on Tidal. I listened to it today.

JBL: Oh, is it on Tidal? Wow. Well, where are those royalty checks now? I reflect on that album a lot because it really shows you all of the directions that I'm exploring now. It's like the key to where my mind was going.

AAJ: I was thinking that we're all evolving, but you were a fully formed player. You have all the vocabulary. You're doing a lot of the same things. Gospel is a big part of that, right? You have a gospel song on Moments, I think.

JBL: Yeah, I do "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me." It's a duet with this esteemed bassist, Ben Shepherd. He lives in LA and plays with everybody.

AAJ: Very cool. Yeah. So, I mean, all the elements are there for sure.

JBL: Yeah.

AAJ: Coming back to Unruly Manifesto. I've been going to the Vision Fest since 2001. I have witnessed many great shows. But then there are those rare moments that really hit differently—when everyone in the crowd is just blown away because they've seen something truly amazing. One example that comes to mind is a performance by Kris Davis, Ambrose Akinmusire and Tyshawn Sorey. People didn't clap right away because they were just stunned. It was such an exceptional experience. I thought the performance of Unruly Manifesto at the 2019 Vision Fest had a similarly enormous impact. It was one of those singularly unique experiences. There was a collective awareness that we had witnessed something extraordinary. Warren Trae Crudup III on drums and Luke Stewart on bass had this amazing thunderous groove going. Also the dynamic between you and Jamie—it all came together to create this cathartic and transcendent experience. Did you have that perception at the time?.

JBL: No, I didn't really have that perception. When you're in the moment it's kind of... You're so you're so present at. I don't really know if it's coming across or not. But, anytime I played with that band, we had those moments. Good memories. Everyone in that band has done amazing things and, sadly, one member has departed.

There was a certain energy with that ensemble and a certain direction. I was reading a lot of manifestos. I was interested in Andre Breton. But I was also interested in Aimé Césaire in particular. I might come and revisit his work, or maybe make an album dedicated to him, because I really love his one poem called "Return to My Native Land." It's really a beautiful piece. I was influenced by Robin D.G. Kelly's anthology of surrealist writings that he edited and put together, Black, Brown and Beige, covering the African diaspora. It features writings by Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and others.

AAJ: I know the Thelonious Monk book, which is brilliant. But I don't know his other works.

JBL: Yeah. I think you would enjoy this book because Ted Jones writing is in there. A lot of different writing. Black, Brown and Beige is a really great book. It was my Bible during that period when I was writing that album.

AAJ: Shifting gears. I love the Mahalia album, and it's been very well received. It's a beautiful concept album. What I didn't realize is that these musical threads have been present in your music since day one. Can you talk a little bit about that, the influence of the church and gospel on your music?

JBL: It's interesting because when I'm asked these questions. Those experiences are not unique to me. I mean, many people go to church. However, I wouldn't say that many people play in church. The other day, I was reflecting on the first time I actually played in church. I was playing my clarinet. I was not playing saxophone. So, my first instrument was a clarinet. And I picked up the saxophone at 12. There's something to be said about the functionality of music within church. I think music's last functional place is in church, at least in this country. You go overseas and there are certain places you could visit where music still has a functional purpose—it's for ceremonies, it's for waking up, etc. It's less about entertainment or going to see a show.

My first initial exposure to music via the church was as functional. It had a purpose. You come in; there is a morning prayer. The morning prayer has a song. You go to devotion. Devotion has a song. You go to the procession where the choir preacher's pulpit comes in. There's a song. Someone prays. The minister has a song before they preach. Sometimes, that song is kind of like the song that leads the congregation into the spirit of worship so that the Word of God can be received. So all of these things play into it and then depending on the style of preaching, the cadence of the preacher is accompanied by an organ. It's kind of this exercise of tension and release. It's kind of funny, this is the first time I ever thought about it in this way. For me, my relationship is with the Creator, and music is a byproduct of that relationship. There's a relationship, and then there's a byproduct. My dad is a minister and that was influential in my life, particularly when I turned 18. So, there are a lot of things in my life that are informed by the Creator. That relationship is personal. I acknowledge the Creator a lot in my work because that relationship is personal.

But the music is a byproduct of that relationship. I've gone through my own trials and tribulations, that for me, speak to the existence of a creator. I would like to think of the Creator as everything that man is not. So that's what helps me get through my life. When humans fail to love, there's a creator who loves when humans fail to love, fail to acknowledge there's a creator who acknowledges. I think in a very real way, that always permeates my thinking. Even when I try to get away from it, I can't—the whole idea of transfiguration, for instance. This thread shows up in all of my work. Even if I don't title it a gospel tune, it shows up. That essence is there in all of my work. What does it mean to like to transcend or have the Holy Ghost or be in a meditative state. I think about these things. But I think about them not in a way to magnify that relationship. All of my stuff is subtle. I think doing a Mahalia Jackson album... Yes, there was a relationship there with my grandmother and my grandparents---it was a beautiful connection with her and I talking about Mahalia.

But then there's also the fact that. I wanted to point and shed light on an individual who existed before Albert Ayler and play that person on my saxophone, as opposed to just playing, and then all of a sudden... now it's like an Albert Ayler album. Albert Ayler knew who Mahalia Jackson was. I can almost guarantee that. I like to create from a lived experience. I don't like to create anything that I haven't lived or had a connection with. So I think it showed its face. I'm not pushing God on anybody.

AAJ: No, definitely.

JBL: If you don't like the album or you don't like God, then don't listen to the album. It's all good. It's all good to me. All those answers are good answers. That's the one thing that I'm never tripping about. If somebody gets on the phone and they say, oh, we don't like your music. The first thing I'm going to say is thank you.

AAJ: You don't hear that too often these days.

JBL: But no, I think people I think some people don't like it. I don't think there's any music that's all things for all people. I think the reality we sometimes live in where everything has to be good. It's healthy to have some resistance.




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Read Take Five with Pianist Shereen Cheong

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