Ode to Jef Lee Johnson: The Promise of Lovolution

Charles Blass By

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Words cannot describe the impact he's had on me as a drummer and a person playing in his band the last 6-7years—soul, groove, improv, noise, authority, sensitivity, when to play nothing, when to unleash, what really matters, and what really does not...and that X factor that will bring someone to tears and leave them with a "stank lip" at the same time. I am forever grateful for him seeing something in me when I was young and inviting me to play his own music on six European tours, many Philly/NYC gigs, and an incredible trio record The Zimmerman Shadow. Through these trips and experiences I got to know Jef and his one of a kind "call it as I see it"/"take it or leave it" outlook— totally unimpressed by any level of celebrity, a true non-believer in hype or anything material (aside from guitars and clothes of course), and a preacher of being in the moment both on and off the stage. I cherish these memories and every second we've spent making music together. Jef is truly a rare musical energy. His playing is liquid; like a faucet of pure unadulterated creativity that's gushing when the guitar is in his hands, sounding like a master with infinite years of wisdom and simultaneously like a child that just discovered the guitar.

This is a huge loss I can barely wrap my head around. My deepest condolences to his family and the vast musical world he's touched over the years. —Charlie Patierno

My wife and I were very close to Jef. We loved him like a brother, and we are grieving. We had been close for so long, and been through so much together. The tragedy of the death of his wife Trish, with whom my wife was very close, was unfortunately the dominant factor in the rest of Jef's life. He was profoundly sad and hurting.

I was inexpressibly fortunate to spend so much time with Jef, both musical and personal. Either circumstance was a lesson, for he was a singular and unique thinker. Whether making music or just hanging out together, I always learned from him.

Musically, of course, he was in his own category, with no equal. Truly a gift, a talent, and skills obtained through constant probing, on a par with the great creators of our time ('Trane, Monk, Hendrix, etc.) To be around someone of that ilk is a rare gift, indeed. To make music with them regularly over time is beyond description.

I was fortunate to have Jef on four of my records, and I was honored to play on two of his. We did many crazy and memorable gigs together, mostly in Philly, one or two in NYC. (Guttbucket, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Rob Reddy, our own trios and quartets, etc.)

As to stories: too numerous to remember. He was a pure musician. Every time he picked up his instruments, it was to seek truth. We all know that musical categories are meaningless. No one personifies this more that Jef, for he always elevated the music regardless of style or category. We were so close as friends, and played so much together, but in actuality our musical backgrounds were very different. But he taught me that when we played it was all just music and none of that other nonsense mattered. That being said, I remember him yelling at me during one gig that if I called "Giant Steps," he'd kill me!

Trish—Patricia V. Johnson—was a fantastic musician in her own right. Her principal instrument was baritone saxophone, but she also excelled at flute and accordion! She can be heard playing those instruments on Jef's records (On Hype Factory, she plays flutes on "Conventional Wisdom" and accordion on "Bye, Bye," "No, No...(reprise)" and "Movin' On.") [Note: Trish also appears on Jef's albums St. Somebody, Things Are Things, and Black & Loud.] She was in various Philly bands including a fine ska band called Ruder Than You, an all-woman saxophone quartet called Winds of Jazz, and a big band called The Elevators. She taught and also enjoyed playing accordion for old folks in retirement homes and care facilities. She was a beautiful person. —Ben Schachter

Jef's not an easy person to talk about. He's the ultimate musical chameleon. Nobody that I've ever worked with was able to get inside of things as stylistically invisibly as Jef. Nobody. I've worked with a lot of the greatest living musicians in the world, and none of them could do what Jef did. Jef was just a freak. A total freak. There was no one like him.

Jef had a pentatonic funky simplicity mated with an avant-gardist's sense of searching and a jazz cat's manual dexterity. When it came time to do the Rediscovering Lonnie Johnson project, Jef was the only person I could imagine that embodied the kind of eclectic, genre- bending spirit of Lonnie himself.

Unlike lesser talents who were better ass kissers and sycophants, Jef resolutely put art above commerce every single day of his life. He didn't suffer fools gladly and if he sensed insincerity and a traitorous disregard for honesty in art he packed up his axe and strolled out the door. In New York or L.A. that kind of behavior doesn't endear you to kingmakers and power players who want you to be an obedient little slave...

Adam Guth and I worked with Jef on Gutbucket as well as a few bands and projects that preceded that group. We spent countless hours, playing, writing and rehearsing at my house, Jef's, Adam's and in rehearsal spaces and studios around the region. We played many, many, many shows together for a long time. Always magical. Jef would show up and he would be all sour, downcast. By the time the gig was over he'd be laughing and joking and goofing around. Music always brought Jef back. You'd do a gig with Jef, and whatever little money you would cobble together, Jef would say, "Oh it's cool, it's cool," and then on the ride home he'd say, "Pull over to the gas station," and he'd fill up your tank with gas, take you out to dinner, and he'd end up with nothing. And he'd say, "Thank you." I mean what kind of person is that, man? The dude was a saint. There's no other way to put it.

I felt inspired to establish the scholarship in Jef's name, at the Germantown branch of the Settlement Music School. So I'm encouraging anyone that considers themselves a friend of Jef's to contribute to it. No one that was a friend of Jef Lee Johnson's has any excuse as to why they are not ponying up to help a scholarship in Jef's name to support a young musician who doesn't have the money to take guitar lessons in Germantown.

Jef Lee has cast off this mortal coil and each of us that loved him is grieving but Jef was not a musician, he was music itself and as we all know music goes on forever. —Aaron Luis Levinson

Listen to the title cut on Jef's Hype Factory. The solo is unreal. Not at all a heavy distortion workout. It is a masterclass in straight up funk swag. Each idea is a perfect little composition, each one a statement. The one at 3:24 kills me. It's like he just wipes his hands with anyone who ever thought they were funky. And he just keeps going because he could do it for days. Jef's sense of funk always cut to the bone. That's because he WAS funk. It didn't matter what genre he was playing. He could be playing with a singer-songwriter whose music had nothing to do with funk and he would always play the perfect shit. And always, somewhere in there, maybe just a little note bend in a certain spot, Jef made sure the funk entered the building. He understood the spiritual implications of that. That's how I approach the drums as well. It's why he and I got along so well. That he saw it in me is my greatest honor and inspiration.

He can also out Steely a Dan. On Longing Belonging Ongoing, check out TV People and Gods Gone By. Beautiful transcendent songwriting.

We'd come off a gig and I'd say, "I saw you smiling, Jef." He'd say, with a twinkle in his eye, "That wasn't a smile, that was grimace." I'd say, "You can't fool me. You had some fun!" He'd grumble, "Yeah, yeah," in that 'whatever' tone but I could see him smiling again out of the corner of my eye in the dark of the car.

Jef was always supportive of anything I was trying to do. He would come and play gigs for pennies. He would always be right in the moment, playing as if it was the most important gig in the world. Then on the drive home, he would insist on buying me food and filling my gas tank, thereby exhausting his night's pay. I would thank him profusely and he would say. "No, thank YOU." No, thank YOU, Jef.

People will talk about what a great musician he was and it will be too little too late. It was Jef the human being that made all that music possible. It was the soul of the man. —Adam Guthrie

I first saw Jef Lee in play 1992. I had recently moved to Philly from my hometown of Spokane, WA. A housemate suggested we hop on our bikes and go to a club called 40th Street Underground in W. Philly to see some crazy band. It was Gutbucket (Jef Lee, Ace Levinson, Ben Schachter, Adam Guth, Jamaaladeen Tacuma). The most raw, insanely funky and ripping music I'd ever heard live. What was coming from the stage brought my mind to a complete halt and shot me, like a cannon, into outer space. The guitarist was astounding. He was Hendrixy, but had a sound and a reach that I'd never heard before. Completely original, steeped in blues and sonically punishing. You could follow every line he played as if on a roller-coaster. Musically, I felt like I'd been handed a compass, but the needle was spinning out of control in every direction. And I wanted to follow it.

He was a master. His pocket and musical authenticity were mesmerizing. Jef was mysterious and could be dark and introspective. But he was incredibly humble and gracious. When he smiled, the whole world brightened. These encounters solidified for me the notion that true greatness was tempered with humility. —Kevin Hanson

Jef Lee Johnson moved seamlessly through the traditions of the blues, r&b jazz and freeform, treating them all as one extended language yet housing those ideas cleverly in a pop structure format that allowed it to travel well. Jef Lee's music carries the sonic signifiers that one's ear is accustomed to if you're aware of the rich arch of important American music. One can hear Wattstax, Texas Blues, Memphis blues , Prince, Wes Montgomery, Hendrix with a twinge of the rural heartland.

Yet he still possessed that wide perspective that stretched from the chaotic surges, reminiscent of Sonny Sharrock superimposed over verses filled with playful, bitter, sweet irony.
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