Among the honorees was CalArts alum and internationally acclaimed saxophonist James Brandon Lewis (Music MFA 10) and his Red Lily Quintet, who were honored for jazz album of the year for Jessup Wagon (TAO Forms). The album, which was highlighted in June 2021 by The New York Times, boasts “some of the loveliest compositions of [Lewis’] career, built around overlapping ribbons of melody.” This isn’t the first time Lewis has been recognized by DownBeat, as he was also named in last year’s critics poll as the rising star tenor saxophonist.
Previously, Lewis has received recognition from NPR, the Macdowell Fellowship, The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, and ASCAP Foundation. More recently, he was named top Tenor Saxophonist for 2021 by Jazz Times Magazine, and is the first scholarship recipient supported by a partnership between the Balvenie and Questlove, with which Lewis will begin a specialized PhD at University of the Arts in Philadelphia. His dissertation will focus on the intersections of music and molecular biology, building off of his “Molecular Systematic Music”: an approach to music that intertwines the fundamentals of music theory with the ideas of molecular biology through the context of DNA.
Currently, Lewis leads numerous ensembles that tour internationally and is a member and co-founder of the American Book Award-winning ensemble Heroes Are Gang Leaders. Lewis joins many other notable musicians recognized by DownBeat’s 70th Critics Poll, including Jon Batiste, Geri Allen, and John Coltrane.