Ode to Jef Lee Johnson: The Promise of Lovolution

Charles Blass By

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Jef Lee had also received a full-size 100cm high-definition color print of The THRILL five years ago at the Jazz Standard in New York. Looking in deeply, he expressed, in his own natural, quiet, extra- humble way, an intimately-articulated direct feeling for the movement of the layers of colors in close touch with his personal sound. At the end of that evening when Time FOX was thrown down, we loaded the framed THRILL together with his axe into his car across the street from the club and he rolled home to Philadelphia.

In Philadelphia, the first roots of the musicWitness Project had begun to grow down at Pep's and the Showboat Lounge back in the late 1950s. Listening then to Art Blakey, Chico Hamilton, Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt, Miles Davis with John Coltrane and Cannonball live with a sketchbook on the bar, I can realize now how another ripple was already expanding out of the actual birth of Jef Lee Johnson's ever-resonant 'Circle and Sound.'

JLJ's sound is all about the Mystery. He loved to play it out of his standing shadow, not the spotlight. A few more souls may get connected and tune in to the sounds. —Jeff Schlanger

We worked together with George Duke and Rachelle Ferrell for many years and he TRULY will be missed by all who really knew and loved THE REAL Jef Lee Johnson.

On the outside, Philly-born guitarist Jef Lee Johnson could seem aloof to most people. He seemed very distant and unfazed by anything or anyone. Constantly pondering life and all of its questions. But there was another Jef Lee Johnson that most people never took the time to know.

"The Little Rascals" (Hal Roach Studios 1920's -30's) was one of his very favorite subjects to laugh and talk about during breaks at recording sessions or while on the phone. If Jef could have been any one of the characters from that early comedy series, he would have been the little black child known affectionately as "Stymie." The reason I say that is because in my view, most of what went on around Jef Lee as far as the world was concerned... well, it stymied him. It puzzled him. It made him look and shake his head in confusion and amazement and then quietly lower his head once again to begin yet another creative guitar excursion.

Jef's inner light came on once he met the love of his life, his lovely wife Trish. They shared something rare that only a few of us ever really get to experience... Being in love with someone who truly "gets us." They "got" each other and it was evident whenever I would see them together. Trish was a musician as well; an accomplished sax, flute and accordion player. From the first time I met her I could see that they were a pair of matching bookends. In 2001 Trish was abruptly taken away from Jef and everyone who loved her one morning in a head-on collision with another vehicle while on her way to visit her mother. It's my understanding that Jef was still sleeping when she left the house that day. I heard that she didn't want to disturb his sleep, so she just left a note and quietly slipped out of the house and into her car. He didn't get to say goodbye. Jef was devastated by her loss. I know that his heart died that day.

After Trish's death, Jef went underground. I and many other friends tried to call and rally around him but he would not answer. Remember, Jef was a loner. He had to deal with this tragedy in his own way. So I and others stopped calling and just let him be. Jef Lee did eventually emerge from his grief and he did begin to play and perform again.

A trendy and sometimes flamboyant dresser (wish I could have worn half the cool stuff he would come up with!). He was a loner; a dry wit; a warm and wonderful heart and soul. A hell of an innovative guitarist while at the same time staying extremely musical and therefore reachable. A quick smile while peeking out from under his round pink tinted sunglasses and then back to the groove. And if you could get him to really laugh out loud, there was nothing like it... Jef could sometimes laugh until he cried! I'll miss you my friend... Those of us you leave behind are far better for having known you. —Larry Martin Kimpel

I first met Jef in the summer of 1989 on a tour working for singer/songwriter Miles Jaye. It was a small tour and we traveled in a converted van that was to take us around the east coast and the middle states.

At first I wasn't sure what to make of this very uniquely different individual, but as soon as he picked up the guitar, I knew to pay attention. Jef was an amazing musician and quite a character.

Soon after that tour, I would play with Jef quite often with Jerry and Katreece Barnes throughout New York City. Jef was a very special friend with a very distinct sense of humor that I adored.

We always had a great time on and off the bandstand. In 1993 I was signed to Polygram Publishing and called Jef anytime I could get him to play on my song demos. What a joy to have access to a musician such as Jef that could make your music sound better than you heard it in your own head; I didn't want to write a song without him on it.

In that same period of my publishing deal, I was blessed to produce a record on Chaka Khan for Warner Bros. Records. Jef was so instrumental in making the song happen, even Chaka Khan wanted to know who he was when she heard the track. To this day his performance is unforgettable!

It was not released: "Queen of Hearts." Warner blocked all production of Chaka that year. They released a greatest hits record and then they dropped her from the label. The song also features Michael Bearden on piano and synth strings, Steve Kroon on percussion. The rest is my programming.

I watched as Jef's career was rapidly building. He was in demand by amazing artists including George Duke, Rachelle Ferrell and so many others. The blessings and gifts that were bestowed upon this wonderfully soft-spoken and caring spirit was clearly a once in a lifetime phenomenon. I had never before met anyone like Jef Lee Johnson and I am sure that I never will again in this lifetime.

Through the trials and tribulations of his life, he maintained such a wonderful and loving aura, one would have never known the pain and losses he had suffered.

Music, friends, family and the world has lost an angel. I am sure he was called home to do bigger and better things. —Ivan Hampden Jr.

It was shocking and painful to lose Jef Lee. His song, such a screaming of joy within the modest and unsuspecting frame. —Pheeroan AkLaff

I met Jef musically and personally in 1994 on tour in Europe and recording "What Spirit Say" with Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society. In this musical endeavor I've been fortunate to find a sonical kindred spirit and great brother with whom I'd swap Jimi Hendrix dreams when they would come to pass. This earthly realm was blessed during the 54 years he existed here and the universe is rejoicing in the newest addition to the galactic ensemble! Peace be upon my brother Jef Lee Johnson. —James Carter

Playing and recording with Jef Lee was like watching/hearing/feeling the time delayed blossoming of a dozen roses coming from a six string guitar. He sung the melodies I wrote with such warmth passion and humor that it made me laugh play and cry at the same time inside. A true Avant-Garde Harmolodic original, Jef Lee Johnson's spirit will never die. —Ronald Shannon Jackson

I don't compose for instruments, I compose for people. I've had the privilege of having Jef Lee Johnson's sound and soul and spirit in my head for many years now. His sound, phrasing, unbelievably unique approach will never ever dissipate. —Rob Reddy

This man is so humble it makes YOU humble just being around him. No ego. Because of this, he didn't have anything to prove, and when you truly don't have anything to prove you make art from an unadulterated place. Very few people have this. If even an ounce of this this rubbed off on me from our years playing together I am a way better musician and person because of it.

I think it's important to celebrate Jef for HIS music; for his prolific solo albums and his live trio concept. Most interviews over the years and now obituaries tend to focus on his career as a side man, and rightfully so since it's so immense. Jef was adamant about creating in the moment... having the exploration on stage be part of the audience's experience. "Play More," "This is the anti-gig where you play everything you wanted to play but held back...""Play whatever you want." As a drummer, these are the words you've wanted to hear your whole life! However this is equally daunting. I remember drummer Michael Bland talking about going through the same thing...most times drumming is all about structure and we're always trying to boil down to the essence of a song and support support support. Jef wanted everyone in the conversation...listen listen listen, flow flow flow. The improvisational journeys I've been on playing with Jef are the deepest musical experiences of my life.

Zimmerman Shadow was conceived and produced by Jean Rochard. He did pick most of the tunes, however each tune's interpretation was all Jef. It was funny, like Jef put on a disinterested vibe towards the record all the way up to the day of recording. I was calling him and asking "whats the vibe?, what are the tunes" etc. And he said these exact words: "Man, we're just gonna go in there, make some noise, and leave. I don't even want to hear playback." ...Not in an angry way, just in a nonchalant "just another day" kind of way... When it came time to actual moment of tracking, he was very much into it, spewing out tempos, feels, bass lines he'd clearly thought through... we'd come up w a groove and 30 seconds later He'd say "OK OK lets cut lets cut" ...Everything on there is a 1st or 2nd take with very little overdubbing. Never been more on my toes in the studio than that day. Because of that fresh hyper-awareness there's no time to focus on anything else but the moment, and that's what Jef wants the listener to feel.
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