James Brandon Lewis, Patrick Holmes, Ches Smith & Josh Werner “Resilient Vessels: Live At the Cell”

I’m still getting my head around James Brandon Lewis’s incredible record from earlier this year, Jessup Wagon – a powerful opus in its own right – and down the pipe comes this raw, emotional session from this quartet on Estonian label, RRGems. Recorded and presented as part of Josh Werner’s July 2020 residency at The Cell Gallery in New York City, Resilient Vessels channels months of turbulence into pure, deeply affecting catharsis.

Nine varied sonic structures lock into powerful grooves and potent, ascendant arcs anchored by the tight rhythms of Werner on bass and drummer Ches Smith. Hypnotic basslines dance with Smith’s flow on “Infinite Structures,” giving clarinetist Patrick Holmes a jumping-off point. The timbral quality of Holmes’ clarinet is intoxicating, richly organic, and smooth like glass. Early in the piece, he taps into an infinite well, lighting the fuse and hollering in contemplation as each note pushes the story further before handing it off to Lewis for some fireworks. “Infinite Structures” plays to one of Lewis’s biggest strengths: his sense of narrative. The piece ebbs and flows, coalescing into a screaming, purifying climax before fading to a solemn whisper. 

Much of what makes Resilient Vessels so memorable is the range shown and the care with which the quartet navigates so many avenues. Spiritual jazz undercurrents ripple through “If Not That,” a deep meditation that casts a growing shadow on the idea of ‘just wait, your time will come.’ In the simultaneous, interconnected bellowing of Lewis and Holmes is a profound tiredness bleeding into the thick air. I keep going back to the phrase, “If not now, when?” as these horns shed any pretense, echoing the pain and anger built over millennia. It’s a quiet, earth-shattering lament.

Werner pops the top off with the buoyant, fusion underpinnings on closer “Exit Realms,” again getting into the pocket with Smith while Lewis and Holmes dance intricate shapes in the skies above. The whole of Resilient Vessels is heavy and asks the listener uncomfortable questions, a trademark of so many of my favorite jazz records. Closing down with this blast-furnace endgame, the unbridled glee with which the quartet unleashes this cleansing scree is the perfect exclamation mark on a magical listening experience. Resilient Vessels pushes us to the brink before grabbing hold and jumping off together. Hell yes.

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