Ode to Jef Lee Johnson: The Promise of Lovolution

Charles Blass By

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Jef was on a VERY short list of absolute must see players ... such a luminous talent, one who was an under-appreciated legend here on Philadelphia. While people state the importance of straight-ahead (more or less) Philly exponents like Pat Martino, Steve Giordano, Benson, and others, Jef boldly mutated, morphed, and transcended boundaries all over the place, meanwhile getting little to no cred in the "guitar music" community in America. He is much better appreciated abroad, not surprisingly.

Cornell Dupree, Jimi, Miles, Sonny Sharrock, Jef covered the whole earth of guitar style possibilities, and was totally soulful even when skronking out! —Bob Barnett

Jef Lee Johnson was so many things. To those of us in the D'Angelo camp, Jef Lee was an amazingly gifted guitarist who toured the world in 2000 as a member of the Soultronics and just last year brilliantly substituted for Jesse Johnson in our current band, the Vanguard— becoming one of only two musicians to appear in both bands.

A gentle musical giant, it always struck me that Jef Lee was "cursed" with so much imaginative creativity that he couldn't be constrained by the r&b and pop genres. Left to his own devices, Jef Lee's talent soared beyond his guitar strings into uncharted territory. He was sadly under-recognized by the general public but the music world lost a major force and we lost a friend. Jef Lee's survivors and friends are in our prayers. —Alan Leeds

I can give you my impression about George Duke Orchestra in Montreux. It was in 2000. Jane Birkin with Sacem organized a "Tribute to Serge Gainsbourg." Eleven French singers came for this. We were doing a small movie about Salif Keita. The Malian singer came for the rehearsal in the hotel where Duke and friends were staying. We stayed two hours in a small room, with the whole orchestra. It was wonderful. I spoke a long time with George Duke. I remember Jef Lee Johnson, sitting close to George, with his orange Strat. I asked him what kind of effects he used with his guitar. He answered me as if I knew him for a long time. GD made special arrangements of Gainsbourg songs. So, when they started playing with Salif Keita, "Je suis venu te dire que je m'en vais," it was a new song, really. Salif's voice from Africa with West Coast arrangements. Simply magic... Jef Lee was playing a rhythmic part, very softly, very jazzy. I remember Jef as a quiet, serious and very kind man. —Frédéric Jouve

The first time I heard him, he was playing electric bass with Bootsie Barnes. This was back in the mid-80s. I first played with him on a jazz gig in West Oak Lane. John Scofield was the 'hot' guitarist on the major scene at the time, which was the late 80s. I remember thinking, this cat Jef is just as badd, maybe badder. Fast forward. Jef played a gig with me on my wedding night over seven years ago at Ortlieb's Jazzhaus. I don't think he looked at my music before. He played a solo on a tune of mine, where he just totally nailed the vibe of it. I never heard anyone play my music that way. A couple of years after that gig, Jef and I were hired to play with a 4-piece black male vocal group out of Vegas called Spectrum. They did Motown and Philly stuff. Jef really handled that gig well. He even had the 'sitar' guitar that was used on some Philly hit songs. We played at the Kimmel Center with the Philly Pops Orchestra. We talked quite a bit during that run. He was very open about everything he'd been through. He was complimentary about my playing, and expressed a desire to 'do something' in the future. I told him that he should have played with Miles Davis. I told that to another monster black guitarist, Ron Jennings. Jef was ahead of his time. I think some folks were hating on his enormous talent and musicianship. He did some great stuff, but should have done much, much more. He should have been a household name, as far as guitarists go. Now, after his death, he just might become that. —Mike Boone

His musical depth challenged and influenced me, and I'm sure many other musicians right away and still does. His genuine and honest disposition and willingness to share with less capable musicians was an extension of that honesty. And as a friend he was again genuine and honest and kind. ...Jef would have laughed at all of this especially heartfelt quotes. —Michael Elia



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