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James Brandon Lewis/Red Lily Quartet - For Mahalia, With Love (TAO Forms)

8 September 2023

When it comes to the latest album from saxophonist James Brandon Lewis and his Red Lily Quartet, the title, quite frankly, says it all. For Mahalia, With Love pays tribute both to gospel great Mahalia Jackson and Lewis’ own grandmother, who introduced the jazz musician to Jackson through her own love of the singer. Like the work of the Beatles or Bob Dylan, Jackson’s canon has its indelible classics, the songs everyone would expect: “Go Down Moses,” “Wade in the Water,” “Deep River,” “Precious Lord.”

But Lewis knows that to play these songs in their traditional arrangements is to do them a disservice, that to truly reinterpret these tunes and draw out new meaning, he has to make them his own – find new arrangements that honor these immortal melodies with his own voice. On previous albums, Lewis has proven that there’s little he can’t accomplish, usually with brilliant effect, and For Mahalia is no exception. With the empathic and telepathic assistance of his quartet – cornetist Kirk Knuffke, cellist Chris Hoffman, drummer Chad Taylor and bassist William Parker – the saxist applies his twenty-first century postbop to these famous gospel tunes with both passion and care. Riding Parker and Taylor’s distinctive sense of swing, Lewis and Knuffke engage in a spirited conversation, often inviting Hoffman to join them in finding the nuances in the melodies, teasing joy out of each other’s performances, and challenging all points of view. “Deep River,” “Go Down Moses,” “Elijah Rock,” and “Precious Lord” flow in and out of their grooves, chasing the needs of each tune, sometimes overtaking them, but always treating them with the respect they deserve.

With love and honor to his grandmother, Lewis does justice to Jackson by doing right by his own instincts. For Mahalia, With Love is another tour de force from one of the most brilliant minds and shining hearts in modern jazz.