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

By Published: February 1, 2013
One of the funniest things I ever heard was ..I used to play with a drummer named Steve Wolfe, who played with Hiram Bullock, who came to check us out in New York. We were just doing a gig at this bar in New York and Hiram came into see Steve. Steve was like, "I want you two guys to meet," and all that. Well, for some reason when he came in, we were doing a bunch of Scofield tunes. I was doing my little Scofield impersonation. And Hiram wound up saying, "You sound like Sco." I said, "Of course I do." He wasn't being funny and I didn't take it in a negative way. That's just how much I would study, in my day. I would study to the point where I would almost become that person, but you have to stop unless you get consumed.

AAJ: Ok, I've been dying to ask you this! Were you ever influenced by Holdworth's playing?

JLJ: Oh yeah, he was one of those guys that influenced me almost too much man. Like I said, I would get the understanding to the point where I was not emulating anymore. I had become that person. That's when you know it's time to step back...several steps.

AAJ: So Sco was an influence, too.

JLJ: Sure. For example, people say without James Brown or Sly or Little Richard, Prince might not exist, but it also shows that he studied them to the nth degree. He's a great study of what they were, not only their music but their showmanship and everything. You gotta give it to him for that if nothing else. He must have sat in his house and studied tapes of these guys and their music. But they all did that. Little Richard did that—they're architects, yeah, but they went to gigs and did whatever. Little Richard said he just took gospel and blues and sped it up. Played by kids- it's always the kids that change stuff around. My generation, the funk-fusion generation, we just took that R'n'B stuff and jazz stuff and kinda twisted it up a little bit. We didn't reinvent anything. We're also the generation that gave music away, but ...whatever.

AAJ: What do you mean gave it away?

JLJ: After my generation of musicians that's when things started getting really weird with machines and the big celebrity wave. It got very strange. It got very non-musical.

AAJ: Interesting way to put it.

JLJ: It's hard with the celebrity element of it now.

AAJ: They're all 12 years old now, too.

JLJ: Like I said, it's always been about kids. Little Richard was a kid. Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers were kids. Kids buy records cause kids are feelin' stuff at this ultra sensitive level. I was just in Europe with Tommy Barbarelli, who also played with New Power Generation, and I was saying, "All pop records are about the boyfriend." He was like, "That can't be true." If you're selling mostly to little girls and then next, little boys, that's all they're going to be interested in is the boyfriend. He said, "Well, what about 'Because I got High'?" That is the boyfriend.(laughs) These are girls looking at the boy or losing the boy or the boy trying to get the girl back..that's who's buying the records so..there ya go.

AAJ: You seem to have a great knowledge and perception about pop or R'n'B type musics. Do you ever think you'll stick your foot all the way in there and make a record that's all the way a pop record or all the way a R'n'B record?

JLJ: No 'cause I'm not pretty (laughs). At this point, probably not. Maybe ten years ago I would have been into it but at this point I'm so jaded and battered and uninterested I'm just gonna do what I like. Now, to me, it's all pop because to me, everybody likes some kind of music, so forget that label's all technically popular music. John Coltrane's music..if a bunch of people like it it's popular music. That's talking about who bought it, not what they played. A lot of those words-like jazz—they don't mean anything. It's music and if it becomes popular, then it's pop. That's the stuff record label people need to associate, really. If these terms didn't exist, all regular people would care about is, "Whose record is that? Because I like it!"

AAJ: Who influenced your vocal direction? I mean you have a nice vocal delivery and range, very R'n'B type of thing, but if you strip it down to a power trio type of arrangement, it sounds like Jimi and I can definitely hear some Prince in there.

JLJ: I hope not! No, that's before Prince- P-funk, maybe, Prince no. Prince and I are the same age, so we listened to the same stuff.

AAJ: Can you point people to what you feel are some of your best recorded performances?

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