At just 27 years old, Chad Lefkowitz-Brown can already look back on a career of impressive accomplishments: he's become widely recognized among his peers as one of the most virtuosic saxophonists of his generation, toured the world with pop superstar Taylor Swift, played with jazz greats from Dave Brubeck to Clarence Penn, is a member of Arturo O'Farrill's multi-Grammy winning Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, received numerous DownBeat Student Music Awards, and become the youngest faculty member at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he'll help mold a new generation of jazz musicians alongside innovators like Robin Eubanks, Matt Wilson, David Sanchez and Julian Lage.
But despite having accrued enough laurels for an artist several decades his elder to rest on, Lefkowitz-Brown has firmly set his sights in one direction: Onward. With his new album of that title, out May 12, the saxophonist takes another leap forward with a set of original compositions and jazz standards that spotlight his ferocious chops and boundless musicality. He leads a quartet of longtime collaborators and friends - pianist Steven Feifke, bassist Raviv Markovitz, and drummer Jimmy Macbride, all of whom have been exploring music together at least since their high school days - and is joined on two tracks by legendary trumpeter Randy Brecker, who lends his imprimatur to a rising star whose expressive voice bears comparison with Randy's late brother, the iconic saxophonist Michael Brecker.
In addition to looking onward in terms of the music that he plays, Lefkowitz-Brown has shown a savvy ability to cultivate a younger fanbase through his outreach on social media. With more than 40,000 followers across platforms like Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, Lefkowitz-Brown has found a way to connect with the elusive millennial audience. In that aspect of his career he's learned a few tricks from his sometime boss Taylor Swift - albeit on a much smaller scale.
"A mom-and-pop coffee shop still has to take cues from Starbucks," the saxophonist shrugs. "I think that applies to jazz musicians as well. There's only so much that I can take from the pop world into the jazz world, but it's been exciting for me to see through social media that there are a lot of young kids out there who are passionate about jazz and want to hear people playing and improvising at a really high level."
Though still poised at the nascent stages of a promising career, Onward reveals the fruits of what has already been a wealth of rich and diverse experience. Lefkowitz-Brown earned his earliest performing credits on stages in his native Elmira, New York, where he played alongside then-septuagenarian drummer George Reed, a jazz veteran who'd accompanied legends like Marian McPartland and Teddy Wilson.
"Growing up playing with George really shaped my development as a musician," Lefkowitz-Brown says. "No matter how interested I became in modern concepts, he would always pull me back and remind me of how deep the tradition of jazz is."
Lefkowitz-Brown continued his education at the Brubeck Institute, where he was able to play regularly with the program's namesake, jazz giant Dave Brubeck. He's since performed on the stages of renowned jazz venues and on more high-profile gigs including concerts at Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden, and the Super Bowl, often alongside Swift. "Experiencing first-hand the process of performing pop music to stadiums full of adoring fans made me value the importance of connecting with people through performance, even when playing more creative music," he says.
That wide-ranging approach, ability to communicate with listeners and familiarity with the music's history is evident in Lefkowitz-Brown's playing as well as that of his bandmates throughout Onward. Having worked and evolved together since their teenage years, Lefkowitz-Brown says, has resulted in a shared perspective on their own place in that spectrum. "We all play a lot of different music, anything from free jazz to fusion," he says. "But we all seem to settle into a home base with each other. Our favorite type of jazz aligns and I feel good that this music is representative of what we love to play."
The album kicks off with the leader's forceful title track, a blistering introduction to Lefkowitz-Brown's muscular approach to the horn. The mid-tempo "Franklin Street" is a nostalgic look back at his childhood home, while "Deviation" is a tribute to Brubeck and his singular path through the music. The simmering "Impetuous" hoists the description as a positive mantle, while "Blues for Randy" turns up the funk for a romp with Brecker.
Stevie Wonder's familiar "Isn't She Lovely" shows off Lefkowitz-Brown's gift for melodic elaboration, while he faces down Coltrane's "Giant Steps," a trial by fire for every tenorman, with fearless bravado, propelled by Macbride's driving rhythms. He turns to breathy tenderness for "The Nearness of You," and closes the album with a brisk jaunt through Cole Porter's "All of You," transforming the standard into a blisteringly swinging workout.