Ode to Jef Lee Johnson: The Promise of Lovolution

Charles Blass By

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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.

His chordal movements have a sentimental touch to them, yet stay firm and never fall into the syrup bowl. Above all he is a voice on guitar who left a body of cleverly crafted songs that used popular forms to express intimate and urgent messages. —Jean-Paul Bourelly

Jef Lee Johnson aka Rainbow Crow, you've made your wings and you took your flight to the stars. Our sadness is immense. But we know that you do not really left us, and if we know how to listen, you'll receive in each musical note in each silence. We will dedicate the next festival, Jef, from the bottom of our heart. Peace and respect. —L'équipe de Sons d'hiver (Team Winter Sounds)

He was really full of music, that's for sure. Many people just saw him as sort of a Jimi Hendrix-ish kind of player, which was not what I felt... Jef was much more in tune with a sort of Coltrane idea... in fact I could feel more of the Jimi Hendrix thing when he was singing. We were talking about making another album, soon, "Letters from Jef Lee Johnson to Robert Johnson." —Jean Rochard



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