They were in Fugazi. Now their jazz transformation is complete.

Music is a series of conversations. It’s a dialogue of moments and movements, in harmony or dissonance with what came before, after or simultaneously. It’s also the exchanges between players on a record or the stage, with each other and their audience.

Brendan Canty and Joe Lally have been in conversation for a lifetime, including their years as the rhythm section for foundational D.C. post-hardcore band Fugazi. Once that group took an indefinite hiatus in 2003, so did the pair’s dialogue, until they reunited in 2016 to form the Messthetics with Anthony Pirog, a guitar genius no matter the genre. As the Messthetics, the trio scouted the frontiers of instrumental, jazz-inflected punk on two albums and at countless shows.

For nearly a decade, Pirog had also been on the line with James Brandon Lewis, an accomplished jazz saxophonist and composer based in Brooklyn who studied music at Howard University. The trio and the jazz bandleader have shared songs and stages, including a three-song set at New York’s Winter Jazzfest in 2019 that sparked the flame for a full album from the foursome.

“It felt like it clicked, especially on [the song] ‘Serpent’s Tongue,’ because that track is very high energy, but with James, it just went over the top,” Pirog recalled of that Jazzfest performance on a recent Zoom call. “From that first experience, it was a very exciting collaboration.”

For Lewis, coming into the fold was a natural extension of his collaborations with Pirog. He says he doesn’t try to force or control the music, instead following where it leads without preconceived notions of what form it should take.

“I’m always chasing energy, so the more energy the better. Although, maybe I need to start working out for that, because I’m getting older, and just going off energy and not working out is a challenge,” says Lewis, his tone measured and his wit bone dry.

“You should try cocaine,” Canty jokingly suggests.

“If my grandmother reads this interview: Grandma, I did not say that,” Lewis says.

The lighthearted bonhomie belies a serious approach to music on the simply titled “The Messthetics and James Brandon Lewis,” released March 15 on legendary jazz imprint Impulse! Records. Impressively, the album was recorded in two days, after just one day of rehearsal and before a debut gig at Blues Alley in D.C. The band notes that the addition of Lewis stepped up the high-energy musicality that the trio had honed on two previous albums and countless shows.

“James completes the picture in such a wonderful way,” Lally says. “It was like adding scenes to a movie or chapters to a book: It was so much more expansive to have James involved, and we left room for that to happen.”

Canty concurs. “If you leave space for somebody that has something to say, they’ll say it,” he says, “and James always had something to say.”

The album was written and laid out to leave room for Pirog and Lewis to toy with melodies, trade solos and play together. Recorded by engineer Don Godwin, many of the songs on the record are first takes: If musical lightning was going to hit, the band wanted to be ready for it.

Lewis’s saxophone adds a bold voice to what the trio has done previously. He soars over riffs that chug along and ring out on “Emergence,” embellishing a punk fury during the song’s climax, and leads with a bluesy swagger on “That Thang.” But the album often finds the group in a meditative mood, whether on restrained songs such as “Three Sisters” or the mournful “Boatly,” which builds patiently before letting out a moving crescendo like a good cry.

“We got in there and just tried to play jazz, tried to listen to each other and play off each other. It was one of the easiest sessions I’ve ever been involved with, because it was inspired,” Canty recalls. “The entire session felt like a great conversation between four people all weekend long. We were really excited, all of us at the same time, about what was coming off the tape.”

End of carousel

That tape tells the tale of a conversation between longtime collaborators, the way old friends can reconnect after years apart and pick up where they left off.

“Brendan and I have things that we don’t even know that we have or know how to address or talk about — they just are things that we do together,” Lally explains, noting that Pirog and Lewis have developed a similar nonverbal language. “Those two entities coming together don’t have that much trouble sharing the space together, because we know how to leave room for the rest of the conversation.”

For Canty, a multi-instrumentalist who plays drums in this band, the process is a welcome challenge.

“I’m trying so hard to stay on top and continue the dialogue at the level that these guys are throwing out. I’m trying, and it’s hard,” he admits. “I love what they’re saying, but man, they are speaking in a language that is very advanced to me.”

What the musicians make clear is that, despite their combined roots in punk, jazz and various threads of experimental music, their only intention when hitting the studio was to be honest and present in the moment.

“It’s that feeling that something new can happen,” Lally says. “It’s the moment of what you’re trying to get at and what you can do together. It is wild, and it’s keeping [the music] in a place where it’s new to you.”

For Lewis, the stakes are high whenever performing and recording is involved.

“Nobody is going into the studio not wanting to make something great — you gotta listen to this stuff for the rest of your life. It better sound good.”

That same philosophy extends to Lewis’s approach to live performances, which he describes as “championships.”

“You get one time to play — that’s a championship,” he explains. “I don’t mean the connotation of it being competitive, I mean that there is no tomorrow. There’s only right now to maximize the moment.”

As for all musicians, this moment comes as memories of the peak pandemic period fade, despite the indelible mark it left on daily life. During that time, the members of the Messthetics didn’t see one another for a while and it wasn’t clear if they’d ever reconvene. Being together, now as a foursome, has the musicians focused on the possibilities of the future.

“Every day you pick up a guitar or piano or drums, anytime you get up there … your life is so short, you have to work at it. You have to practice and make mistakes and listen to those mistakes to figure out what you’re hearing,” Canty says. “We get up there and it’s tabula rasa. You try to clear the decks of all your preconceived notions, and then you listen for the things that are actually happening right in front of you.”

Toward the end of our interview, the band members encourage Pirog to contribute to the conversation; though he was the linchpin for the band’s new configuration, he’s been quiet for most of the call.

When he does speak up, his comment — “It’s like they already said everything” — speaks to the narrative they’ve crafted in the moment. But for a band in conversation with itself, the dual heritages of punk and jazz and audiences eager to explore new musical ground, it’s clear the Messthetics still have plenty to say.


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