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

Phil DiPietro By

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[ Editor's Note: This 2002 article was republished in memory of Jef Lee Johnson who died at age 54 on January 28, 2013. ]

Jef Lee Johnson is a true American original and a true American gift to the musical world. Guys like Jef are the embodiment of every reason to use the phrase, "He's got more talent in his pinkie than so and so has in his entire body!" Problem is, especially lately, relatively dawdling critics like myself can't keep up! See, anyone who knows who Jef Lee Johnson is knows he's rippin' it up. He's rippin' it up so prolifically these days he's finished up another record, called St. Somebody, during the time it took me to get this interview down on paper, or electrons, or whatever this interview is "down" on.

Jef Lee has played since he was a young boy growing up and playing up in the church his grandfather built in Germantown, Philadelphia, PA. He plays everything- including guitar, bass, keyboards, sax, drums and drum machines, and is a potent vocalist of broad and powerful range as well. But it's on guitar that he burns most incandescent, conjuring jawdroppingly brilliant, careening stylistic collisions of legato-laden fusion, angular outness, and state-of-the-art acid-funk. Jef's concept, while wholly and truly original, justly deserves mention alongside such profound, formidable masters as Hendrix and Holdsworth.

Jef has a highly expert foot in many camps, contributing to the point of collaboration with such heavyweights as James Carter, Rachelle Ferrell and George Duke, and touring and recording with Erykah Badu and D'Angelo. Recordings with Rob Reddy and Ben Schachter show his expert "downtown" side, while sessions with polyrhythmic master Ronald Shannon Jackson and Jamaaladeen Tacuma show his volatile funk fusion side. Besides, who can possibly have reservations about the only man on the planet to have played with McCoy Tyner and Sister Sledge on the same day! Did I mention his bass playing alone has landed him in high-echelon session-land, or are Billy Joel and Roberta Flack too obscure as references?

Lately, some events have fortuitously conspired to result in Jef getting some new recordings of his own "out there," including the one before his latest, called Hype Factory, a two-hour plus epic that in my opinion, was the first recording to most completely, yet still partially, document the range of styles at which he is proficient. EmArcy/Universal in France also recently released the incendiary "News From the Jungle," a group collaboration featuring a New Power Generation rhythm section, bassist Sonny Thompson and monster drummer Michael Bland. This recording has the distinction of being Jef's most "blowing" release to date, and is thereforethe one to get for those electric guitar fans, of which there are still a few. And while superlatives fail me in the case of Jef Lee, I'm pretty comfortable recommending the new "St. Somebody" to those in search of his most "accessible," whatever that means these days, offering to date, showcasing his rootsier, bluesier, grittier side. As you'll read, some things have happened in Jef's life, some fortunate, and some very much not- that have shaped his recent past, colored almost the entirety of this piece, and most certainly, bear upon him every time he unpacks his many axes .

All About Jazz: How long have you been playing music?

Jef Lee Johnson:30 some years, I don't even know, yeah.

AAJ: You do a lot of different stuff, from heavy R and B to avant-garde. You're all over the place stylistically.

JLJ: You gotta pay the mortgage...

AAJ: You toured with D'Angelo right?

JLJ: I toured with him two or three years ago now. Actually I played with him when his first record came out in '94.

AAJ: I saw you on TV with him.

JLJ: That was the second record, yeah, but I've know him since the beginning. He's from Virginia.

AAJ: So when you started 30 years ago, how'd you get into it?

JLJ: I think my oldest sister showed me a few chords on the guitar, and I was playing a little bit of bass in church with my mom and my aunt. From then on, I must have lost my mind or something, I don't know.

AAJ: You are just a fantastic player man. Legato stuff and a total blues element and very individual phrasing and on this new record, you're playing everything... sax too?

JLJ: Yes. My wife, before her accident, she was teaching me how to play a little bit of sax, and I would just practice, too.

AAJ: God bless you man I'm very sorry to hear that. Terrible.

JLJ: She played sax and accordion, she's playing accordion on the record, too.

AAJ: Now is that record officially "out" yet?

JLJ: Oh, yeah, it just has microscopic distribution and all that on a little label called Dreambox Media. A little artist, so ...(laughs) People can get it at Sound of Market (15 S. 11th St., Third Floor, 215-925-3150) in Philly, but mostly online, like Amazon. My News from the Jungle CD is also available online. I don't know the specifics, but I know there is a plan to release it here. That's all I know. I don't know how they're going to go about it. My domestic releases are also available for mp3 download at e-music.

AAJ: Who's on News From the Jungle?

JLJ: That's with Michael Bland and Sonny Thompson who used to play in New Power Generation.

AAJ: Did you play with Prince as well?

JLJ: No

AAJ: So what's the approach on News?

JLJ: Initially, I don't know who was supposed to play on it. It was supposed to be a trio record centered around the Duke Ellington's jungle series of compositions, like "Black and Tan Fantasy." I don 't know who was supposed to be the better party to do it but eventually it ended up being me and they're happy about it. I'm happy they're happy.

AAJ: It was supposed to be another guitarist?

JLJ: Well, I came in last. I don't know who the other guitarist, or whoever, was supposed to be.

AAJ: Well, they got more than they bargained for with you.

JLJ: Pardon? Oh, thank you.

AAJ: You are killing it man, and you probably know that music better than whoever else they had in mind.

JLJ: Record labels want to sell records- I don't sell records. I can play guitar a little bit but I'm not a star or a millionaire or anything. I'm just a decent guitarist.

AAJ: You're a little more than decent there. I have talked to some heavy cats, guys like David Fiuczynski and David Gilmore, who think you are one of the heaviest cats out there.

JLJ: But those are musicians. They're not the people who buy records. This French label, EmArcy/ Universal Jazz-they might be different-they seem to be different in that they are more into the music.

AAJ: Was that a short session?
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