James Brandon Lewis Quartet, Code of Being, Intakt *****
One of the best albums by any saxophonist this year and latest addition to albums of the year. It arrives at a place, a certain haven of enchantment, that only the US player sometimes known as JBL knows. The album has a momentousness to it that you …
Published: 26 Oct 2021.Updated: 15 months.
One of the best albums by any saxophonist this year and latest addition to albums of the year. It arrives at a place, a certain haven of enchantment, that only the US player sometimes known as JBL knows. The album has a momentousness to it that you only get with the masters and Lewis is certainly easily considered as one. Capable of delivering a penetrating vision as well as supreme command of the instrument yes it is Coltranian in a certain sense but the saxist finds new wrinkles and solutions while charting out his own path. Quintet record Jesup Wagon was a big achievement certainly from a compositional point of view. From a sheer performance perspective Code of Being shades it at the finishing line and is even more direct and moving. With pianist Aruán Ortiz bassist Brad Jones and drummer Chad Taylor Lewis is coming in from the wilderness of the hardcore avant-garde environment where there are as many successess as failures given the nature of unfettered free improv. But there are still no easy compromises. It is as if Lewis has distilled what he wants to say over many years and is now just doing the saying. His gritty grandeur is the winner that takes it all. James Brandon Lewis top photo jblewis.com
With some 700 people expected in the hall, according to a friendly bartender in the Oakley Room tucked discreetly downstairs away from the main lobby of the cavernous Cadogan Hall a stone's throw from Sloane Square, the audience, when they indeed …
With some 700 people expected in the hall, according to a friendly bartender in the Oakley Room tucked discreetly downstairs away from the main lobby of the cavernous Cadogan Hall a stone's throw from Sloane Square, the audience, when they indeed did take their seats, were as silent as lambs at least until the requests started to flood in later as they soaked in the Feinstein sound and wanted their own piece of the action. It's curious but hardly breaking news how overlapping the world of Broadway song and jazz is and yet you could be a musicals fan and not care as much for jazz or vice versa. And that is part of the secret of Feinstein's crossover appeal. Certainly pianist Kennedy Aitchison has jazz chops to burn as did all the trio although improvisation was carefully controlled and the singer ruled the roost throughout with his light and appealing croon and an amazing technique that can swoop down low as easily as it can reach to hold out a high note. A consummate appreciator of the art of the Great American Songbook and a fine piano player to boot this was quite a masterclass. The first half was the pick of the two elements of the 2-hours plus concert. The main interplay with the band was with pianist Aitchison but you did have to feel for him a little when Feinstein himself took over on piano as he is if anything an even better pianist. Could he accompany a singer other than himself? Possibly, although he'd have to curb his enthusiasm. With a perma-smile on his face, great stage presence and the ability to tell some quite amusing jokes Feinstein above all knows how to draw out a classic lyric and make it meaningful. In one telling joke he managed to persuade us into the pathos of the situation that saw him in New York sitting at a Hamilton matinée talking to an audience member who had lost their partner and as he commiserated asked gently ''did you not want to bring someone to take their seat?'' looking at the empty place, ''a friend or someone?'' The punchline was terrific. ''No, they're all at the funeral.''
I was only a tiny bit disappointed in the Sinatra tribute towards the end of the second half although it was impressive the way the quickfire songs in the medley were arranged. And yet this seemed more like crowd-pleasing fare. Nonetheless Feinstein nailed 'Witchcraft' especially well out of the litter of numbers dashed off in this mega chairman-of-the-board mix.
The overall highlight for me was the very unsoppy treatment of the Kenny Ascher and Paul Williams song of solidarity known for its interpretation by Helen Reddy of 'You and Me Against the World' from 1974's Love Song for Jeffrey. Unsoppy yes but of course Feinstein can and does shape schmaltz if he needs to into an artform because of the sincerity of his style. What else? The Gershwins' ''S wonderful' showed Feinstein's considerable piano chops in their finest light and again was a gem of a treatment.
Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford's 'Old Friend' also worked its spell, Feinstein has been singing this hugely sentimental song of understanding post-heartache for years, sometimes in a Johnny Mathis-type fashion, but its familiarity doesn't show and simply shone no matter how cynical you might think you are. Feinstein told us that the song ''still moves me'' and you easily believe him.
The singer took requests and what was startling was how many were said or shouted back to him from the otherwise ever-so-polite audience and which Feinstein incorporated into the medley as if to him it was child's play. Best of all was his way with old favourite Irving Berlin's 'I Love a Piano' that goes back at least to Feinstein's Algonquin live album from the 1980s. Bassist Don Richardson (who Feinstein inadvertently rechristened ''Robinson'' when he announced him) was a faithful accompanist, the bass part quite important in some of the arrangements although really Feinstein could have just as easily operated as a duo with Aitchison. Powell the drummer was not as well used as perhaps he could have been but came into his own properly in the Sinatra tribute. Right at the end Feinstein paid tribute to the late Leslie Bricusse with 'Two for the Road' a Bricusse-Mancini classic sung memorably by among many others Peggy Lee and which was as elegant a choice as Feinstein's performance was throughout. Stephen Graham