James Brandon Lewis is part of a new generation of jazz musicians, part of a new species of artist. A child of the late 20th century, Lewis has both contemporary jazz and hip-hop ingrained in his ears, along with so much more that he probably isn’t even aware of himself. Again we arrive at a question that has been plaguing the listening community for years now: Is he even playing jazz? There are a number of people who would say no: musicians, critics, and audience members. Others disagree. This isn’t a novel idea, however. Even jazz musicians in the 1940s rejected the jazz label; they played bebop, not jazz. Nevertheless, we do not hesitate to call the music that Bird and Dizzy created “jazz.” At the heart of the matter, it could be safe to say that jazz is all about pushing the boundaries of a genre; in order to create sincere, genuine music, the artist must manipulate and taint the very nature of what they are working with. Otherwise, it is not original. It is not theirs. The term “jazz” is incredibly problematic because of its broad nature. Days of Freeman adds to the tradition of making listeners and critics scratch their heads. But don’t worry – that’s a good thing. What good does music do if we’re not talking about it? If we’re not thinking about it? If we’re not obsessing over it?
Days of Freeman is James Brandon Lewis’ venture into the world of jazz and hip-hop, a world that has recently seen increased activity. Joining the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, Lewis gives us a collection of tunes that incorporate contemporary jazz music with elements of hip-hop. Sounds and styles range from funk beats to free jazz sonorities to DJ techniques. This album does something that is difficult to do when trying to create music that attempts to combine two musical styles. On this album, jazz informs hip-hop and vice versa. There is no clear divide between the two worlds.
The listener encounters a constant back and forth between a contemporary jazz sound, obviously influenced by tenor giants John Coltrane and Chris Potter, and a funky backbeat feel. It is this back and forth, this continuous interplay between these two musical settings, that creates the appeal of the album. Days of Freeman is notable because of this interaction; it is not a straight-ahead jazz record, nor is it a half-hearted attempt to play some jazzy licks over mediocre hip-hop beats. The listener is taken on a journey, traveling from one sound to another, kept guessing as to what will come next. Despite the fact that this album is supposed to delivering a hip-hop-centric sound, Days of Freeman occasionally veers away from the idea of channeling hip-hop (e.g. “Of Dark Matter”). This isn’t a bad thing, though. By presenting an idea, leaving that idea, and revisiting it later, Lewis creates a genuinely interesting musical course of events.
Why should this album be considered to be hip-hop? Why isn’t it just a horn player blowing over some funky beats? That shouldn’t constitute a hip-hop record, right? Lewis addresses this very eloquently in the album trailer video: “I wanted to make an album that spoke to… that was a nod to hip-hop, but that the sound of it and the vocabulary that I use to play was more in line with the vernacular of a lyricist, of a rapper.” This idea is illustrated very well in “Boom Bap Bop.” Lewis’ sax solo utilizes rhythmic ideas that one would find in the verses of an emcee. The inflections are the same. The cadences are modeled after a rapper’s. The concept of modeling the sound of a horn (particularly the saxophone) after the sound of a vocalist is not at all new; comparisons to the human voice pop up all over the place when studying the 100+ years of saxophone history. Sax players from every generation strove to make their horns “sing.” Lewis is doing the same thing, only with one slight difference: he wants to make his horn “rap.” This is one reason that this album is noteworthy in terms of jazz/hip-hop fusion: Lewis really is melding these two styles together, legitimately making them one.
In addition to this rhythmic style, the focus on words in Days of Freeman is also very much a nod to the hip-hop world. Hip-hop is a music of storytelling, of vocal expression. Rappers are under the spotlight in hip-hop; they are the main attraction, because they are the ones telling the story. While Lewis does an excellent job of mimicking the style of an emcee using his saxophone, a saxophone does not literally speak words. Nonetheless, Lewis makes sure to continue the hip-hop tradition of storytelling by using recordings from interviews with his grandmother. Lewis is taking various important elements from the world of hip-hop, dismantling their usual make-ups, and re-distributing them throughout his music. The rap comes from two distinct sources: both his horn and his grandmother. Together, they create hip-hop.
The four “breaks” are possibly the most fascinating moments on this album. Not only do we have this interesting take on story-telling and focus on spoken words, but we also have the use of electronic DJ techniques, an aspect of hip-hop that is sometimes forgotten, especially today when the term “DJ” has come to mean so many different things. Sampling is integral to hip-hop music. Sampling is how DJs created hip-hop music thirty years ago at neighborhood parties with turntables and impressive record collections. With each “break,” we hear the manipulation of sound that we might have heard at one of those house parties in the South Bronx in the early 80s. The sampling of Grandma Lewis and the looping of the saxophone, the usage of these sounds to create a new composition: these are the things that make this a hip-hop album. In addition, let’s not forget that sampling and looping weren’t invented by hip-hop DJs. Miles Davis used these techniques back in ’69 on Bitches Brew. So yes, this also has its roots in the jazz tradition. Looking at all this closely will reveal a marvelous collection of musical connections and relationships between two musical worlds. Any music fan would be forced to smile.
There is an overarching theme on this album; it’s made obvious in the title: Days of FreeMan. The Black experience, from generation to generation, has found a mode of expression in music. It is probably the biggest reason that “Black music” has, at the very least, had a heavy influence on popular music for the past century. The Black experience is central to jazz. It is central to hip-hop. Especially in today’s age of social change and political unrest, we see artists like Lewis contributing to this movement, giving their own commentary. This album conveys a message of freedom. This message is simple and straightforward. It is universal. Through Lewis’ music, we hear the embodiment of this freedom. We hear the erasing of genre lines and the merging of musical traditions that have expressed the longing for freedom in the past. Both in the sounds that are heard and in the message that is communicated, the listener is enthralled by the concept of the FreeMan.