Jef Lee Johnson: St. Somebody (2002)
In an interview that I recently had the pleasure to conduct with the multifaceted, multitalented, multi-instrumentalisthey, just plain old multi Jef Lee Johnson, there came time for a pointed exchange. Acknowledging the jazzier elements of his career, but also appreciating his broad knowledge and deep understanding of all styles, I asked if he would ever make a record where he completely immersed himself in the "pop" or R'n'B worlds. After all, anyone who has pulled stints with D'Angelo, Ronald Shannon Jackson , Erykah Badu, George Duke, Sister Sledge , McCoy Tyner, Archie Bell and the Drells, James Carter, Roberta Flack, Billy Joel and Rechelle Ferrell probably has enough , uh stuff together to make some kind of cogent statement in that direction. Jef , right away said, "No," but evidently, he didn't mean it-not really anyway.
Maybe it's because Jef's already released two records (containing three discs) within the last six months, one of which was the double cd magnum opus "Hype Factory," extending over two hours, the vast majority of which consists of vocal tunes with expansive instrumental breaks. Weighing in very nicely on what I'd consider the left side of the "accessibilty" scale; yet, closer than not to accessible, it comes complete with the Jef's "usual" indelibly high standard of musicianship and a heady brew of his characteristic funk-rock psychedelica with touches of everything from kinky country to acoustic tenderness. Maybe it's because the third side, the French (EmArcy/Universal) import "News from the Jungle," recorded with ex-New Power Generation jazzfunkateers Sonny Thompson on bass and man-mountain Michael Bland on drums, was hands-down the most powerful, greatest acid-drenched instrumental statement of his career, and one of the best of the year, as acknowledged by the French press (and everyone else that's heard it). Just maybe Jef got so much stuff out of his system at once he sort of decided to reign it all in-in favor of what seems like a simpler approach that emphasizes laser-like song craftsmanship and precision, with "St. Somebody." But I got to know Jef a bit and it's more likely that he'd say the music on "St. Somebody" is merely what he was feeling at the time. Not a "statement," not a contrivance, not a plan, not a marketing scheme, just the fourth side of music in the compressed "career" he's uncompromisingly offered up to the world since 2001.
But put aside all the debates about labels placed on the music , the current state of the business, and what constitutes our "pop" music of the day and what have we got here- a platter that simply has got to extend the reach of Jef Lee's gospel, build his audience and gain him recognition from the music "establishment" he seems to disdain. Yes, to someone like me who's been listening all along or to anyone who's keeping an eye on the scene -this is the one people. And whether Jef himself believes it or not-it's an artistic statement alright.
On "Peace and Love Forever," Jef testifies as only a man who was a boy who grew up in the church could. The permutations and self-made backing vocals of the repeated refrain of "Someone said it's dark and cloudy. I say there's sun is behind the rain," imbues it with the weight and joy of a prophet. The effortless slipping, sliding and popping of the guitar solo reminds me , like many of the guitar statements on the disc, of those "perfect" takes on the vintage Steely Dan recordings, both musically and sonically, with Jef single-handedly taking on each and every role of the triple-scale earning hired guns that Becker and Fagan ever dragged into the Record Plant or the Power Station. Did I say that Jef did all this at his home studio, and that he mixed and mastered it there, as well? Ears people. Say it with me now.
On the next cut he makes you feel whatever pain you want to ascribe to the phrase "It's been so long since I've seen with my eyes, it's one thing to see there another to be there." The backward, envelope filtered vocals provide the "hook," to the maximum extent that any 2 minute song can have one, while the gutwrenching guitar-work gives a glimpse of whatever edge Jef has had the misfortune to look over to come to this realization.
..."where in the end of the world" finds him again coming out of the church with his blues and his acoustic strapped on low, recalling one Mr. Ben Harper's funky, swampy, gritty approach. When he chants, "We all wanna be free-from something" over Katreese Barnes' gorgeous affirmations-well- we momentarily are.
"April Rain" is an instrumental commensurate with the remainder of the songcraft herein. Especially enjoyable are the sequences where Jef Lee makes the strings sound as of they are going to fall of the fretboard. It also drives home the challenge that lies before anyone looking for an artist that simply sings and plays this good. The equivalents that I know about anyway, can be found at the highest levels in the so-called business. Why not Mr. Johnson?
Looking for a gentle bluesy rocker with a Steely Dan-type horn section provided by Jef Lee on multiple saxophones, with a pedal-steel solo rendered on a strat? Try "Genovieve." "Waters of light" is like slightly polished Hendrixian psychedelia, sporting an expert counter-melodic bass line worthy of some of the Gamble and Huff-era studio masters that Jef actually played with as a young man in Philly. A longer, headtrip set of vocals on a lush bed of chromatically slid-into chord work sets the mood that'll have you reaching for your stash and your headphones. With filters on the drums and backward, popping strat punctuations over cleanly strummed acoustic guitar, Jef Lee sings "Dark of night, waters of light, set your rivers free," and lets it flow into a so-reverb-drenched -it -sounds-submerged lead. Where's the other multi-instrumentalist that could track this in his living room? Please!
But the most affecting tune of the set, at least for me, is the disc's somber centerpiece, the haunting, roots and tears drenched "St. Somebody," with it's a stripped down, low-tech and huge drum machine pocket. When Jef sings, "I can feel your pain. There must be someplace for you to heal. There must be a Saint Somebody. I just can't explain," it hits deep. At the risk of sounding obvious, the naked, exposed nature of the sentiment and the music that surrounds, or doesn't surround it, makes you know that somehow- he does feel it. That notion, coupled with knowing that on a deep , personal level, the pain of what he has recently had to endure might be so great as to reach beyond that of the individual and encompass some part of all of ours together- that commonality of feeling and spirit is found precisely at the crux of the definition of just what it is that makes art, after all.
Regardless of whether it garners Jef a Grammy nomination or anything remotely resembling what he deservesit's one magnificent joint. The photo on the cover, which lends some imagery to the concept of the title song and the album, was even taken by Jef. Let me leave you with this thought. I recently received a bit of journalistic advice reminding me to make sure to review with a "critical ear" and at least help listeners and readers take note of specific faults or weaknesses. It concluded in a nice piece of reverse logic by noting that a recording without flaws is a masterpiece and that masterpieces are few and far between, as is common knowledge. Please assume, for the purpose of this review anyway, that I wholeheartedly believe every word of that advice. Now, read this again.
Track Listing: 1)...where in the end of the world, 2) Peace & Love Infinity, 3) seen with my eyes, 4) April Rain, 5) Genovieve, 6) waters of light, 7) subliminal cut (coke cola) 8) St. Somebody 9)"snapshots of your dreamthing, 10) For Pete's Sake 11) always here 12) the day the stars fell from the sky and burned the world 13) ism ism, 14)promise of lovevolution 15)sunday with Delphine 16) traffic jam in a one horse town 17)one for right now 18)places i have been in my mind and otherwise
Personnel: Katreese Barnes-vocals, Adeline Tomasone-flutes, the late Trish Johnson- flutes, Jef Lee Johnson- everything else, including guitars, bass, drums, saxophones, drum machines, keyboards, mixing, mastering, financing and photography.