The Messthetics and James Brandon Lewis

06aug8:00 pmThe Messthetics and James Brandon Lewis8:00 pm

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Joe Lally was onstage, playing at full throttle, when he realized that his band had found a true kindred spirit. It was the fall of 2021 and the Messthetics — the instrumental trio of Lally on bass, his former Fugazi bandmate Brendan Canty on drums and guitarist Anthony Pirog  — were at Brooklyn venue the Bell House, digging into their uptempo riff workout “Serpent Tongue.” Joining them for the piece was a special guest, acclaimed jazz saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, making only his second cameo with the group after a drop-in at another New York show back in 2019. That first meeting had been a success, but this time, Lewis’ presence sparked something new.

“It pushed the song like crazy,” Lally recalls of a passage when Lewis and Pirog began trading fiery solos. As the intensity kept building, the bassist felt simultaneously challenged and exhilarated. “You’re just holding on and going, ‘It sounds great,’” he remembers telling himself. “‘Just keep going.’”

That imperative — the sense that there was more to explore within what began as an ad hoc union among the four musicians — lingered after the performance ended. Now, Lewis, Pirog, Lally and Canty are ready to unveil their first full-length album as a quartet. Recorded in just two days in December 2022 at Takoma Park, Maryland, studio Tonal Park, with engineer Don Godwin, The Messthetics and James Brandon Lewis features nine tracks that capture the combustive chemistry Lally originally sensed onstage while expanding the collaboration in all directions. Across the album, due out on March 15th via the legendary Impulse! label, the quartet can be heard locking into a hard, swaggering funk groove on “That Thang,” cradling a wistful, jazz-like theme on “Asthenia” or rocketing into ecstatic art-punk overdrive on “Emergence.”

Canty relishes the way the album preserves a feeling of real-time musical conversation. “In a world that can be perfected in a myriad of ways using computers, it’s super important to allow the thing you’ve honestly reacted to, to live,” the drummer says. “So I’ve spent a lot of time, since that first initial recording, protecting this recording. We did try to mix some of it, but we really left it as rough mixes for the most part.”

“Sometimes you’ll play a record live and it just doesn’t translate like it does onstage,” Pirog adds. “But this was just one of those moments where we were just prepared enough, everyone was open to being loose enough, that we just sat down and made it happen really fast.”

Evidence of that spontaneity runs throughout the record. Listen to the way Canty and Lewis play a tumbling, stop-start duet against Pirog and Lally’s tight descending vamp at the end of opening track “L’Orso” or how Lewis and Pirog improvise together atop a dubby groove during “Three Sisters,” urging one another toward thrilling new peaks.  

Even when the guitarist and saxophonist solo sequentially, as on closing track “Fourth Wall” — where Lewis ends his statement with a gritty wail and Pirog answers with a snarling, soulful line — you can hear a certain charge passing between them. 

“The duality of them playing together — all these melody lines and then egging each other on during the solos — was super liberating,” Canty says of Pirog and Lewis’ interplay. “And for me as a drummer, I felt like I could literally just be a utility player, just to support.”

Though the configuration heard on The Messthetics and James Brandon Lewis is relatively new, it builds on long-standing musical relationships. Lewis and Pirog first met around a decade ago at a session led by free-jazz drummer William Hooker and instantly hit it off, going on to work together extensively in Lewis’ own groups. “Since day one of knowing Anthony, me and him just fit,” says Lewis, now widely acclaimed as one of the most compelling bandleaders on the contemporary jazz scene. “We looked at each other after that William Hooker session, and we was like, ‘Damn, this shit is on point.’”

Lally and Canty of course share a similar brotherhood, rooted in the 15 years they spent touring the world as the supple yet rock-solid rhythm section for Washington, D.C.’s iconic Fugazi. “I play differently with Joe than I play with anybody else,” Canty says. “He creates this foundation that I call a very sturdy jungle gym for all of us to play on. He keeps it dubby and rhythmic, and there’s a lot of times where there’s a sixth sense — there’s things that happen between us when we’re playing that there’s no accounting for except for the fact that we’ve been playing together for 30 years.”

Lewis likens the experience of playing with Lally and Canty to his work with various jazz elders. “The way I revere them is the same way that I revere playing with Jamaaladeen Tacuma or playing with William Parker,” he says, citing a pair of esteemed veteran bassists. “It’s a certain road experience that you can’t get in school.” He also appreciates that he can hear the rich musical heritage of their hometown in their sound. “Growing up in the D.C. area, Brendan and Joe are familiar with go-go, with all of the stuff from the area,” he says. “So I will say that the time feel — it don’t get no better than that. It’s like a well-oiled machine playing with them.”

That steady rhythmic backbone, coupled with Pirog’s omnivorous guitar approach — which draws on jazz, punk, free improvisation and everything in between — gave the Messthetics a huge sonic palette right from the start, showcased on both their self-titled 2018 debut and 2019’s Anthropocosmic Nest. But Pirog had always been curious what his friend Lewis might add to the band, leading to him extending the invite for the saxophonist’s initial 2019 sit-in, which took place at New York’s Winter Jazzfest. 

“James was just someone who I felt had the right energy to add another texture to the group, and immediately we already had a good interplay going from playing in his groups,” Pirog says. “I also just wanted to share this group that I’ve been working with, with him because he was so generous with me.”

Once the quartet established a rapport onstage, the Messthetics followed up with an invitation to team up for an album, which Lewis quickly accepted.

“Every time I played with them, there was a vibe and it was a good chemistry,” Lewis says, looking back on his early appearances with the group, which eventually led to a one-off studio track that appeared on the saxophonist’s 2023 LP Eye of I. “They hit me up and they’re like, ‘Yo, man, would you want to record a full record?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, sure,’ because the vibe was so natural.”

The Messthetics spent a few months in the fall of 2022 assembling and arranging material as a trio before meeting with Lewis for just one day of rehearsal prior to the recording in December. Even with minimal prep time, the material evolved considerably. Lewis added a lush, spiraling melody to the chorus section of “The Time Is the Place,” originally called “Meters Groove” in honor of the song’s Canty-written central riff, a crisp seven-beat strut. And Lewis was the key element that unlocked Lally’s “Railroad Tracks Home,” joining the bassist on the second pass through the theme and turning the subtle, swinging mood piece from something, in Lally’s words, “dirge-y and dark” to “a light-bringing thing.” 

The seven-and-a-half-minute “Boatly,” meanwhile, made room for each member of the band to explore his full dynamic range, with brushed drums and a ballad-like texture segueing into a breathtaking coda — which Pirog cites as his favorite moment on the album — where Lewis unleashes fierce cries and brawny blasts over a cyclical 6/8 theme as Canty works up to a cymbal-bashing climax.

The fervor of Lewis’ playing both here and elsewhere on the record clearly points back to John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, firmly rooting the album in the soil of the classic Impulse! catalog, despite its thoroughly contemporary feel. Lally says he can’t wait to see his band’s name next to the unmistakable orange, white and black Impulse! logo. “Looking at a record and I’m on impulse! with Alice Coltrane?” he adds with giddy disbelief. “It’s like being on Otis Redding’s label.”

“I’m trying to be cool about it,” Canty says with a laugh of being associated with such a storied catalog. “Hopefully nobody’s going to figure out that I’m the imposter in the temple.”

Thankfully, it’s hard to imagine today’s listeners thinking in those restrictive terms, as the album is arriving at a time when the borders of genre are blurrier than ever. Lewis, for one, relishes the chance to plug into the power of the Messthetics’ punk-adjacent milieu. “I think that’s ultimately why I said yes” to pursuing the full-length, he says. “I love nuanced stuff, but I also like the ability to really just put out some energy. When you hear the Messthetics by themselves, that shit is cranking. And I’m always signing up to crank.”

Judging by the enthusiastic response the Messthetics and their esteemed guest have received during more recent live meetings, listeners are similarly eager to hear what happens when brilliant players like these stretch themselves through collaboration.

“I feel like, more and more, there’s an audience for exploration,” Canty says. “And I really hope this record’s part of that.”