There is so much special about this recording, James’ 9th, starting with [on the way in] the lavish artwork, including a reproduction on the cover of Carver’s own tantalizing drawing of the Jesup Agricultural Wagon, which is shown in a photograph on the back cover, rendering a dialogue of representation and abstraction that Lewis models in the music. And while liner notes are generally more relied upon than celebrated, Jesup Wagon’s are delivered by the great UCLA American historian Robin D.G. Kelley, who in 2009 released the definitive Thelonious Monk biography 'Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original'. His notes, printed lovingly on an ochre background, contain much historical detail about Carver, particularly as they relate to the tunes. The fact that Kelley was willing to write them tells you something about the power of the music on the album, which Kelley calls “a revelation.”
If “revelation” is a word commonly used to describe master saxophonists like John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders and Dewey Redman, then it fits easily in the horn of James Brandon Lewis, who is a keen student of those and many other elders. But while boundless energy characterizes his playing, it is also grounded by a deep sense of narrative, which is why he is attracted to histories, like Carver’s, or to theories like his own Molecular Systematic Music, used on his superb previous 2020 Intakt album, 'Molecular', or to artistic genres such as surrealism, modeled by Lewis on the stunning 'An UnRuly Manifesto' from 2019.
Helping James get it all out on Jesup Wagon is the Red Lily Quintet, anchored by the tectonic rhythm section of bassist William Parker and drummer Chad Taylor, and rounded out by cornetist Kirk Knuffke and cellist Chris Hoffman. Parker, who James says “has looked out for me ever since I arrived in New York City,” is a genius of the stand-up bass who performed with grand-master Cecil Taylor for 11 years straight. He is also a renaissance man in his own right. Chad Taylor, “one of the most melodic drummers I’ve ever played with,” James says, is a Chicagoan who has gifted to New York some of the energy and drama the windy city is known for. Kirk Knuffke is one of New York’s rare cornet players, using that instrument’s impish tone to explosive effect on dozens of records by New York jazz heavies. Chris Hoffman made his bones playing Henry Threadgill’s demanding music in a few of the great alto saxophonist’s bands, and has worked with artists as diverse as Yoko Ono, Marc Ribot and Marianne Faithful.