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Jef Lee Johnson: It's Been So Long Since I've Seen with My Eyes

By Published: February 1, 2013
AAJ: Were you playing smaller, three note voicings, when you played with him?

JLJ: Sometimes. And sometimes I was playing almost exactly what he was playing if I could figure it out.

AAJ: In unison?

JLJ: It was like a "Wall of Sound" thing in an abstract sense. He was for whatever reason, like, "C'mon, Play!"

AAJ: I mean, Mc Coy is known for his deep chord concepts. Berklee has whole courses of study on his techniques and his theories of harmony.

JLJ: Yeah, well I had course every night. Instant courses (laughs). It was like, put up or shut up. I think that's what he was doing.

AAJ: How'd you hook up with him?

JLJ: Auditions. I went and got the gig. He was trying something out. He had just done a record with Santana, Phyllis Hyman and Stanley Clarke, so they were looking for a guitarist. Bobby Broom did a gig, I remember. I did about eight.

AAJ: Do you currently gig locally in Philly more than other places?

JLJ: No. I've been on the road, pretty much, for the last two years. That's what I have to do if I want to pay the mortgage. I don't even know what's going on locally. Rechelle was a good while, D was almost a year. James Carter. Rob Reddy did a little tour, which was cool. The Montreux All-Stars was with Sanborn, Joe Sample, George Duke, Al Jarreau and Roberta Flack. That went out twice in the past two years. Lalah Hathaway was on one also. She's one of my favorites. Everybody is together on that. One band. Everybody comes up and does their tunes. At one point literally everyone is out at the same time. George is the MC and picks the band. That was the deal with the Miles tribute thing because he's the resident over there, so...

AAJ: Yeah he's the "Montreux guy."

JLJ: We did a tribute to Serge Gainsborough the year before the Miles one. I also did some gigs with Roberta as a sub. I was playing bass.

AAJ: So who are some of your favorite rhythm sections?

JLJ: Well, I love playing with Michael Bland, and Jon Roberts who is with George. Actually, the last gig was with Jon and Chris McBride. That's who did the record.

AAJ: Nice!

JLJ: Jon's another Philly boy. He's Steve Ford's nephew, who is like the gospel producer god here. He's in that crossover crew. Brian Moore is another one. They both moved to Atlanta from Philly.

AAJ: Who's the crossover crew?

JLJ: They're like church drummers who have this really bizarre style of playing drums. It's based on an old R'n'B-ish thing, similar to what James Jamerson did to R'n'B bass. It's almost like a bebop interpretation of R'n'B but it was the way he did it that made it another thing. Like on "Midnite train to Georgia" and "Grapevine," he is playing some really berserk stuff, man. That's what these drummers do. I am only talking about drummers though. Let's see, on bass, Reggie Washington and Chico Huff. As far as other instruments, Jim Ridl is a great pianist.

AAJ: Oh yeah he plays with Martino. He's a nice pianist.

JLJ: He's beyond a nice pianist man. We were going to do a trio record with him playing left hand synth or organ and I was going to play bass and guitar. We'll see. It's all up to me. My mind is shredded wheat, If I can hang in there, and they can put up with me, then we'll do it.

AAJ: It sounds like you're hanging in there.

JLJ: My mess is ..sometimes, I'm not here. I don't even know how I'm doing it, actually.

AAJ: A critic trying to describe your playing, especially when taliking about your chordal style or chord fragments, or shorter burst of single-note stuff, would say "angular." Do you know what I'm talking about?

JLJ: Yes, I've heard that term before. And I think it comes from the elements of my style that evolve out of Monk, Jan Hammer and Wayne Shorter. Even some Ella Fitzgerald. Even Zawinul.

AAJ: Is it intervallic?

JLJ: Well, the theory is the base. You're supposed to communicate on all levels not just the funny words and melodies that fit over the chords. It's supposed to be a dialogue with the people back at the bar, who have no idea of theoretical concepts, stop between sips and go "hmm," and relate to it on some level. That's what it's all about. It's not supposed to be inaccessible or, "hey look what I can do." This is for us. All of us. If you've ever watched the series "The Prisoner" there was a sign on the compound that said. "Music begins where words end" or something like that. That's the way I was brought up. Music is supposed to be for people who can't sing or can't play to bring them into that. It's not supposed to alienate.

AAJ: So you come at it from a very non-technical perspective?

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Download jazz mp3 “This is This” by Jef Lee Johnson