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Jef Lee Johnson (and the Wordy Mimes): Hellion

Phil DiPietro By

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A 2002 AAJ interview with Jef Lee Johnson, who can virtuosically play anything with strings on it, showed that in conversation and in music, he's an eclectic, ripping headlong through a gamut of free-associations and precise distillations. Here's one capped with an analogy musicians should swear by: "I have to put these records out myself. The music is to be heard, not just me sitting around and improving upon what's been done. It's like having paintings hanging in the house. People have to see them—or in my case, hear them."

The man has made good on his word since that statement, releasing five recordings under his own name and guesting on the three-disc acid-funk opus Minneapolis We Insist by Michel Portal and Ben Schachter's ultra-taut combo Nothingman.

Although Jef Lee could and should make a recording of jazz standards, and he's also known as a Downtown experimentalist, his solo releases feature his vocal, pop-rock-funk side, spurring writers to reference Hendrix, then go beyond. Funny, that's just what he does. It's not just the sometimes uncanny similarities of the vocal style and the guitar pyrotechnics—it's that soul, that utter rootedness to the earth, that comes through in even the most unlikely, far-out places.

"Disconnected, for example, most strongly recalls Steely Dan's plush vocal harmonies and airy altered chords. But there's a church-full more gospel and grease in his self-made chorus of vocals than Becker and Fagan could ever hire at triple-scale, let alone the badass blues inflections of his slippery strat that frankly, leaves the Dan's army of guitar sessioneers in the dust.

For a more direct Jimi reference, check the title track, the eleven-minute psychedelic closer, ..."revolutionmumbojumbo, or "Children of the Sonic Soul. The latter is a sprawling six minutes featuring lyrics of allegiance to a cosmic alliance over a sonic solar system of his own creation, pierced with laser-like, frizzle-fried, fluent improvisations. How is this the same guy who follows with a pristine two-minute pop song containing rhyming couplets drenched in existentialist philosophy?

I been gone so long
that far is here to me
if I keep keeping on
what will I see
But I'm okay with that
jump back begin again
cause where you dropped me off
this is where I came in.
The crystalline snap-and-pop chicken-pickin' solo that follows is every bit as compactly erudite as the lyric.

While Jef Lee Johnson may not yet enjoy broad-based recognition, his willingness to share his most personal and painful experiences should go a long way to getting him there. He humorously summarizes the yin and yang of existence by singing:

What happened to what's his name
I should know 'cuz I'm the same
not his brother but some other me
Half not so half-crazy
my memories a bit hazy
but don't bother, it's just some other me.
This analogy could be applied to his musically split personas as well. The thing is, all of them are amazing.

Track Listing: 1. it usually slides open, 2.NONE FOR NONE, 3.Heavy Rain, 4. Children of the Sonic Soul, 5. this is Where i came in, 6.Some other me 7. Hellion, 8.Sizzlean, 9.CAKE, 10.Disconnected, 11.Perfect Peace, 12. MADE YOU LOOK, 13.people talk, 14. this is not jazz,too, 15.Six inches, 16.i like, 17. Y'allness, 18. Go Down, 19. Here She Come, 20. own little world, 21. hurt, 22. This is not jazz/the tarzan precept/ revolutionmumbojumbo

Personnel: Jef Lee Johnson- everything

Title: Hellion | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Dreambox Media


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