Jef Lee Johnson: It's Been So Long Since I've Seen with My Eyes
[ 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?
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.
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?
JLJ: It was three or four days in Minneapolis, actually. I just remember playing what I felt like playing. I wasn't in the greatest of moods. In an eerie way, I think my playing has gotten a little more focused in. Maybe because I just don't care, I'm just getting rid of any kind of inhibitions. It was very laser- like playing on my part. And it's unusual for me to comment on anyone's playing, least of all my own, but I feel like...
AAJ: You honed right in on it!
JLJ: I mean it's been like that all the way around recently. All the sessions- even like Common's session or whoever I've been cuttin' with- things have been like really crystal clear. And that was no exception. There are a lot of great tracks laid down and I think it's a great record!
AAJ: And it's interpretations of Duke tunes?
JLJ: Yeah it all just worked out really fantastic. There's some original stuff and it's not one of those like, "Oh, aren't we groovy? Listen to all the notes we play," kinds of records. It's like-music-which is what they all should be anyway.
AAJ: I was assuming it was like a jazz project with jungle beats underneath or something?.
JLJ: Oh, no no. Funny, though the Minneapolis people thought it was going to be a drum'n'bass type of thing too and that's not what the intent was. No. They wanted me to play- and they wanted me to play what I play.
AAJ: Hopefully they will do something with it here. Funny that it's cut in the US and all the marketing is through France.
JLJ: Well, the US isn't the world. Less and less anymore. A lot of those labels don't care what's going on in the US. Artists, too. I just read a quote from the singer of Simply Red, the British group, who out and out said he didn't care at all what's going on in the states. I don't have an opinion about it one way or another. I'd just like people to be able to hear the music whenever, wherever. Whether its an old fashioned word of mouth buzz thing...
AAJ: Well, you've got the European distribution knocked off right off the bat, eh?
JLJ: Yes. But I don't care if it's an internet thing or whatever. There are a bunch of things that they're threatening to do over there. There was a Miles tribute we did last year in Montreux that was kind of weird like that also. George Duke, Herbie, Terri Lyne Carrington, Marcus Miller, Richard Bona, Christian McBride, Chester Thompson, Wallace Roney and me. The only reason I played on it is because they didn't have a guitarist and they were going to do Tutu and Jean-Pierre. I played with George earlier and he was like, "Would you mind?" and I was like, "Heck yeah I'll play on it!." Then it was getting later and later and they were like, "You don't have to play." Then it was me saying, "I'm playing on it!"
So we played, and everybody was being really polite, and I decided not toand I was playing all over the place and the word I got- you know, I was figuring people were going to say, "never let this guy in the country again" but all those Montreux people were thinking about releasing this as a record. People left crying after the show. The Montreux people were like, "It was the most beautiful thing..." and I was like, "Whoa...do it!."
AAJ: So you took your space and people got into it.
JLJ: I don't know why people were being so polite on stage. I wasn't even in that frame of mind, but if no one was gonna play... I'll play! I think everybody was just tired and some people had to split right after, so maybe that's why. George just ran out to me and said they needed guitar on it and I said, "Yeah, I'll play." Now, that may come out.
AAJ: One of the guys who played on Tutu is one of the few I would lump you in with Jean-Paul Bourelly.
JLJ: I love Jean-Paul but I'm trying to not be lumped in with anybody. But that's one person I'd love to be..I always liked him anyway
AAJ: Among other things you are the expert killer extensions of Hendrix with the funk, acid rock...
JLJ: No, I understand the comparison...
Anyway, Rechelle's thing was another great record that didn't get the push it deserved.
AAJ: What a technical singer she is as well as a beautiful feel singer.
JLJ: Well, yeah... she's all over the place... but when you're trying to do something there are always some people that can't feel it that way
AAJ: She's on a major label, too.
JLJ: But that doesn't mean anything if you have to fight with them all the time. Instead of reveling in something that is wonderful, label people actually get weirded out by it.
AAJ: So, you said you're on Common's new one, too?
JLJ: We just cut some tracks for his new cd in New York.
AAJ: Who are some of the other well-known R&B artists you've recorded with?
JLJ: Erykah, this cat J-Dee, I did George Duke's record last year...that's supposed to be out soon. Rechelle's getting ready to do a new record.
AAJ: Do you tour with these people?
JLJ: I did gigs with George and Rechelle, and D. I did Letterman with Erykah, which was pretty hilarious.
AAJ: Did you tour with James Carter?
JLJ: Yeah, I did. I did dates with him about two years ago in Europe.
AAJ: You did some writing for that as well.
JLJ: That's an old song from a Shannon record called "Terminal B" and James wanted to do it again. I'm on at least five of the Ronald Shannon Jackson records. In fact they just released a "live in Poland" thing.
AAJ: So, getting back to Hype Factory, are you doing everything on it?
JLJ: Well, my wife Trish is on there on sax and accordion- and a pedal steel god named Kurt Johnston. He's ridiculous. He's the most bizarre pedal-steel guy I've ever heard and that's not his main axe. He likes playing guitar and piano but ...I think he actually played on BonJovi's last record. He has his own band- the Johnston brothers. I was an honorary Johnston brother one night. Ivana Taylor and Charlene Hollaway are singing on there as well. If I could ever get equipment that works and finish this new record Charlene's going to be singing on that, too. Charlene has sung with everybody. She's Philly's everywoman. She and her sister Paula and Annette Hardaman do pretty much every session that's done here. Ivana has a group that does traditional Tex-Mex music. My record has mostly vocal tunes and a couple of instrumentals. All the tunes have extended instrumental sections.
AAJ: Are all the tunes "inside" tunes? I mean there are no avant-type, Rob Reddy type tunes?
JLJ: Yeah. It's a little bit more accessible to people who are not ready to do the open groove thing. Although there are always sounds that are going to...
AAJ: Make your ears perk up?
JLJ: I mean that's what I want to do. I want to incorporate that on top of a more groove-oriented thing, for now. I mean, some things are a little extended or unorthodox, but that depends who you are, you know.
AAJ: You play all the bass, too?
AAJ: Some killer lines and concepts on there for the bass lovers.
JLJ: Thank you. Yeah, half of the record is some older material because I am sick of not being able to...I have to put these records out myself- I don't have the money- and stuff just sits around here, so what's the point? The music is to be heard, not just me sitting around and improving upon what's been done. You are supposed to write...then write some more.
AAJ: You gotta let go of it at some point.
JLJ: Exactly. It's like having paintings hanging in the house. People have to see them. Or in my case, hear them.
AAJ: So, this is your own, indie thing?
AAJ: With help from this Dreambox cat?
JLJ: No! (laughs) I mean well, yeah. Not financial help. I used to play in Reverie with Jim Miller, who is Dreambox.
AAJ: Oh, that band with Gerald Veasley?
JLJ: Yeah, I was playing bass before Gerald. I told him to call Gerald because I wanted to play guitar but that's another story. Also, Jim decided he was sick of listening to a bunch of poor musicians sitting around saying, "We should do this or that," so he made his own thing. But you have to come up with your bucks and your product somehow and he'll try to take it from there with some distribution and getting some stuff reviewed. It's like little tiny people with stones fighting a giant army. It's a losing battle but, on some level, it should be.
AAJ: So for a little info and to buy the records you should go to Dreambox Media?
JLJ: Yeah, I don't have a personal website with an itinerary or anything. I haven't played a solo gig in two years. For the past three or four years, my band has been Ted Thomas Jr. on drums and Charles Bolland on bass. They are on my live cd, called "the Singularity."
AAJ: That's mostly culled from live Knitting Factory gigs, huh?
JLJ: Yeah, that's some of the last stuff we did. And after last year, I haven't been interested in playing a lot. But we should be playing. Hopefully, now with the French thing, etc., the ball will start rolling. A different "News from the Jungle" group did a gig two and half weeks ago. Me, Michael Bland and Reggie Washington on bass.
AAJ: I just saw Reggie here with David Gilmore and we were talking about you. He is truly one of the great bassists today!
JLJ: I've always like Reggie and tried to find an excuse to play with him and it finally happened-in Paris.
AAJ: Yeah, Reg always knows what time it is. Unbelievable grooving on those Steve Coleman records on odd meters.
JLJ: With Jean-Paul Bourelly too. And apparently we blew a few minds. You know getting the gigs together can be tough. Something could happen today which wouldn't be able to happen tomorrow. This just cam together when Sonny Thompson said he couldn't do the gig.
AAJ: I'd love to see you with with Michael and Reggie.
JLJ: I want to take my band over to Europe though. There's a definite thing goin' on with that. The stuff that's happening is all European stuff. There is a whole different climate there with people trying to playmusic. It's not all "pop or nothing" so.... It's been true for awhile. Their attitude is more like, "This is fine and this is fine, but we just want to leave this open in case some other people want to listen to some other music." Not like here where the attitude is, "Oh, you don't like this? What's wrong with it? What's wrong with you? " People here are into that herd thing.
AAJ: I think there's a lot of second guessing that goes on with the labels today.
JLJ: The labels just want to make money. That's not good or bad either. But if they think that only these few beautiful people represent the most money, then that's what they're going to put everything into. They're not interested in anything else that's trying to be different or musical. The people that are in charge of making the money don't know about music anyway. They only know about making the money.
AAJ: It used to be the industry was populated by music nuts.
JLJ: Once they find out how to make more and more money it's just a flood. "Let's get these music people outta here and figure out a way to make some bucks." But that's gonna change too, you know. Maybe when Britney Spears' little sister grows up, she's not gonna feel like listening to pop music. Everything centers around the kids cause they buy the records. They're not concerned about older people, audiophiles, or musicians 'cause they don't buy the records.
AAJ: I have that "Singularity" record and there is some serious shit on there boy
JLJ: And that was a hohum night. The gig we did the week after should have been the record. They both want to play and it's on me.
AAJ: I also have that "Communion" record, on DIW. Didn't you play drums on that?
JLJ: Funny you asked. Everybody asks. No, that's just a lot of drum programming.
AAJ: Some pretty impressive drum programming
JLJ: But that's what I would have played on the record-if I had elected to play the real drums on it .There have been some great comments on that. The guy that mastered it actually asked me who the drummer was on it. After I told him it was programmed he said, "You're going to make a lot of drummers very angry."
AAJ: You have so many aspects to your abilities. You could probably just make a living programming drums.
JLJ: Yeah, well if I thought like that...Anyway, yeah "Communion" is on a Japanese label and "Blue" is on a Florida label. That's all so suspect.
"Hype Factory" was all done heremastering and everything- and it looks like the next record is going to be done here also, unless anybody steps up-but it doesn't look like it's going to happen. It's all done on DA 88 machines, which use the Hi8 video tape, which is basically Tascam's ADAT. I think is the highest end thing you can get on that format before you go to hard disc. I mean, people keep improving their mess, but I don't use ProTools or Logic Audio. I'm a tape guy and that's what I'm having problems with now. These digital mixers ..I don't work for NASA..and there is always one thing that isn't working or another thing isn't working. I couldn't even get sound the last time. I am taking another hard disc mastering machine back tomorrow. They're so high tech they don't work! Hopefully, tomorrow I'll be working on the next record and a few weeks after that, it'll be done.
AAJ: So you're mastering and mixing yourself?
JLJ: Yes, both. I don't know whether it's good or bad but its necessary at this point.
AAJ: It's a good way to save money. Mastering is the alchemy of the music industry.
JLJ: Well, it's not good for one person to be doing it all but the money is the issue. I've had wonderful people offering me deals and stuff, but I can't let people do stuff and not get paid. If anyone steps up and I get a budget, then I'll be making some calls. As it stands now I have to do it all myself. It's going to sound the way I want it, but some things are going to be missed.
Most musicians in my shoes don't need much of a budget because we do music. We don't sit around and theorize about it because we're either doin' it or not doin' it. We go in and hit it and quit it and press it. I'll take whatever whoever is going to give me, which varies widely. Labels have the money that cats like me could make records on-it's not even an issue. But they fight the war that isn't the war to fight. They could just say, "Here, take a couple bucks and make a record." That's what DIW did, for instance. There's always somebody trying to add something to weird us out. It's not necessary, just let us make the music. It'll make it's money back right away, and maybe inspire some people like some things inspired me when I was trying to make some music.
I mean, it's weird when you're doing a gig in Poland and someone says, "I'm trying to pattern my style after yours." I don't even think of myself as having a style or pattern but apparently, I do. I don't have mountains of fan mail, but people write me letters and it's great, but it's like, "huh"? It's funny. I 'm not going around hung up on a style. I'm hung up on the next piece of music I'm going to do. Whoever it was that said, "A writer writes"- the same thing could be said of musicians. "A musician plays music.."you know.
AAJ: So, that being said, I'm still curious about your style and some technical elements of it. Where did your legato stuff come from? Were you trying to phrase like a saxophonist, trying to get that fluidity?
JLJ: Probably, when I initially thought about it. Now it's just what I want to say at the time. It never mattered who the guitarist was. I just tried to imitate what I liked. If that was Jan Hammer, then I try not to play just what he plays but how he plays it. If its Wayne Shorter, I want to make sure to play how he plays it. It just falls out of your head if it's the appropriate time. I'm not trying to play, like, legato notes or whatever. It's like having a conversation. When I would have a conversation with my wife, I wouldn't think about how I was going to say something to her. I was just excited about what we were talking about and the rapport we had. The only other thing I've ever been that comfortable about was music-her and music.
I don't think about anything. The vocabulary is just there. You get to a point where you've developed your voice, as Shannon would say. A lot of cats go through life never finding a voice but that's ok if you're always looking for it. That's our goal as artists, to find out what it is we do, or how it is we do it.
AAJ: So what are some of the music that got you psyched to achieve what you've done? Do you have any influences you'd want to cite or is that question bogus to you or what?
JLJ: I mean when I was a teenager, yes absolutely. It got to the point where I was always listening to Monk, or always listening to Jan Hammer or Hendrix. Everybody has their little ...at a point you listen to them so much you start to recognize, "Oh this is that guy and this is that record and this is that version," and then you start to get an identity of your own. It's just like learning from your parents and seeing how they live and getting to the point of, "Well, how would I deal with that?" It's developing the vocabulary and taking it from there. Not just reciting the words and then re-reciting the words over and over.
One of the funniest things I ever heard was ..I used to play with a drummer named Steve Wolfe, who played with Hiram Bullock, who came to check us out in New York. We were just doing a gig at this bar in New York and Hiram came into see Steve. Steve was like, "I want you two guys to meet," and all that. Well, for some reason when he came in, we were doing a bunch of Scofield tunes. I was doing my little Scofield impersonation. And Hiram wound up saying, "You sound like Sco." I said, "Of course I do." He wasn't being funny and I didn't take it in a negative way. That's just how much I would study, in my day. I would study to the point where I would almost become that person, but you have to stop unless you get consumed.
AAJ: Ok, I've been dying to ask you this! Were you ever influenced by Holdworth's playing?
JLJ: Oh yeah, he was one of those guys that influenced me almost too much man. Like I said, I would get the understanding to the point where I was not emulating anymore. I had become that person. That's when you know it's time to step back...several steps.
AAJ: So Sco was an influence, too.
JLJ: Sure. For example, people say without James Brown or Sly or Little Richard, Prince might not exist, but it also shows that he studied them to the nth degree. He's a great study of what they were, not only their music but their showmanship and everything. You gotta give it to him for that if nothing else. He must have sat in his house and studied tapes of these guys and their music. But they all did that. Little Richard did thatthey're architects, yeah, but they went to gigs and did whatever. Little Richard said he just took gospel and blues and sped it up. Played by kids- it's always the kids that change stuff around. My generation, the funk-fusion generation, we just took that R'n'B stuff and jazz stuff and kinda twisted it up a little bit. We didn't reinvent anything. We're also the generation that gave music away, but ...whatever.
AAJ: What do you mean gave it away?
JLJ: After my generation of musicians that's when things started getting really weird with machines and the big celebrity wave. It got very strange. It got very non-musical.
AAJ: Interesting way to put it.
JLJ: It's hard with the celebrity element of it now.
AAJ: They're all 12 years old now, too.
JLJ: Like I said, it's always been about kids. Little Richard was a kid. Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers were kids. Kids buy records cause kids are feelin' stuff at this ultra sensitive level. I was just in Europe with Tommy Barbarelli, who also played with New Power Generation, and I was saying, "All pop records are about the boyfriend." He was like, "That can't be true." If you're selling mostly to little girls and then next, little boys, that's all they're going to be interested in is the boyfriend. He said, "Well, what about 'Because I got High'?" That is the boyfriend.(laughs) These are girls looking at the boy or losing the boy or the boy trying to get the girl back..that's who's buying the records so..there ya go.
AAJ: You seem to have a great knowledge and perception about pop or R'n'B type musics. Do you ever think you'll stick your foot all the way in there and make a record that's all the way a pop record or all the way a R'n'B record?
JLJ: No 'cause I'm not pretty (laughs). At this point, probably not. Maybe ten years ago I would have been into it but at this point I'm so jaded and battered and uninterested I'm just gonna do what I like. Now, to me, it's all pop because to me, everybody likes some kind of music, so forget that label stuff..it's all technically popular music. John Coltrane's music..if a bunch of people like it it's popular music. That's talking about who bought it, not what they played. A lot of those words-like jazzthey don't mean anything. It's music and if it becomes popular, then it's pop. That's the stuff record label people need to associate, really. If these terms didn't exist, all regular people would care about is, "Whose record is that? Because I like it!"
AAJ: Who influenced your vocal direction? I mean you have a nice vocal delivery and range, very R'n'B type of thing, but if you strip it down to a power trio type of arrangement, it sounds like Jimi and I can definitely hear some Prince in there.
JLJ: I hope not! No, that's before Prince- P-funk, maybe, Prince no. Prince and I are the same age, so we listened to the same stuff.
AAJ: Can you point people to what you feel are some of your best recorded performances?
JLJ: I'd like to think you'd get something out of all of them, but I must say I was very impressed by Rechelle's record, "Individuality," and the "News From the Jungle" record stands out. Seriously, if I heard Rechelle's record, and I hadn't played on it, it would still be a recording that I'd have to have. Like "Music of My Mind" or something, or "Extensions of a Man" by Donnie Hathaway. Even if I don't listen to them for two years, in two and a half years I am going to dig 'em out and get another lesson. Rechelle's record is one of those records.
"News from the Jungle" is- there is some of the most bizarre guitar on there- I don't think I have ever heard anything like it- which is weird to say, too cause I played it (laughs). In a musical way, not a super- guitar- player kind of way which-I can't stand that. It's getting kind of tired now. Dead tired actually.
AAJ: Lately, I've enjoyed those Rob Reddy records, "Quttah" and the "Songs You Can Trust."
JLJ: I just remember leaving those sessions thinking, "Well, I hope that's gonna be ok." Later, I knew it was fine. I'm so into the way he writes and plays it's not ever going to be bad. But that's another thing, too.That should be a day at the office for any kind of musician with any kind of pride in workmanship. Like the Miles tribute, or the trio gig we just did in Paris. People were freaking out and it was nice. Don't get me wrong but all gigs should start on that level. As bad as they should be is amazing. The point of the music is to lift up and be therapeutic. If it's really amazing people should be lifted out of the building.
AAJ: Not everybody is operating at your level of consistency, trust me.
JLJ: That's not good. It should be the norm. But that plays into what I said earlier. It's about celebrity now and whose gig you are doing. I see it without even being on the gig. It's like the drug dealer analogy. If a 30 year old tells a 16 year old not to sell drugs, but then the kid is making six figures and driving a BMW, how convincing can you be? If someone's doing a lame gig and making ten grand a week, there is no point. We need the money to live, but it's about what you want it to be about. At this point I want to play some music, that's all. I mean at my age and like, my situation-I don't really have anything now-so if I have the opportunity I am going to play.
AAJ: What do you mean you don't have anything?
JLJ: I mean my wife. That was my life, so.
AAJ: I am sorry. Again, man you guys must have had a wonderful relationship, just the way you're talking. She just keeps coming up.
JLJ: Yeah, it was beyond reality. I've never seen two people like that before-my parents even. We were a Disney movie. It was just one of them things. "I wonder if two people could ever be that much in love?" Yeah, we were.
AAJ: People that have the best thing- it's taken away from them- and people who have like the workaday relationships just stay stuck in them forever.
JLJ: Yeah, but y'know, that' life. I can't get to like a spiritual, metaphysical level on it because if I do, then ...If I think of it like, well, it wasn't a selective thing, it's a little bit easier to deal with than if there was some reason behind it. If there was a reason behind it I'm really going to be upset....but, I'm too much of a coward to jump in front of a train or anything. With my luck I'd end up being a quadriplegic or something.
AAJ: Jesus, Jef.
JLJ: No...I'm just gonna take it out on the music.
AAJ: I happened to mention your thing to a great bassist who you referred to earlier and he, very surprisingly, had his own story to tell. I just felt horrible.
JLJ: Yeah, we're in an ugly club together. When I was making that record with George, I really wanted to call Wayne (Shorter). There's a few of us. It's not a "time heals" situation. It's a "this is your life from now on, deal with it." So I'm trying to drown out the voices in my head with some other voices, basically. We were married seven years. I knew her a lot longer actually, but we never talked to each other. We were afraid of each other but...let's talk about something else.
AAJ: Ok. Let's hype "Hype Factory," or are we done with that?
JLJ: Probably not. I'm preoccupied with trying to get this other thing done which is probably not good, because I'm always immediately on to the next thing. I have one that is actually done that is a "ghost" project- it will not be released under my name. Then there's a new solo cd which is basically done except for a few tracks and the mixing.
AAJ: Are these both single discs?
AAJ: Like an hour apiece?
JLJ: I have no idea and knowing me ...I wanted to do a series of cds and Jim said it was easier to release a double cd than two in a row, so that's why at the last second "Hype" became a double. And now 've been running into all these mixing problems.
AAJ: Maybe somebody should do that for you and you should concentrate on all the art that's pouring out of you.
JLJ: The accident put all that into perspective because basically, nothing is going to be the way you want it to be so you're going to have to adapt or rechannel or...so I have to. Nothing is that earthshaking that I can't adjust at this point, or just like, leave the room if it's bothering me that much. So when I get some equipment that works, I'll start to cut again! Gotta get it out there. Y'know I have to say, I really appreciate that JazzTimes review. That says everything about Hype Factory.
AAJ: Yeah, Hilarie Grey really packed it all into about five or six sentences, there.
JLJ: Yeah, it scared me man. Those are some big words to live up to.
AAJ: I just think more people should know about you and what you're doing. I mean some people know who you are and don't even know that you have solo cds out there.
JLJ: People come up and ask at gigs you know. But that's part of the herd thing too. Like people asking if I have a website. Hey, if you can go to Amazon and type in my name, then I don't need a website to sell records. It's another programming thing. It's not their fault. That's just the information people are fed and come to expect.
It's like the teenagers and the emotional thing we were talking about. They're parents don't want to emote. They want to sit in their cubicle and listen to some soft jazz in the background so they don't have to think. I have heard it said over and over again, because if people start thinking, they may not be following.
AAJ: Yeah man, plus if they listen to you they won't be getting any work done (laughs)! I literally could not listen to your music and write about something else, for instance.
JLJ: Right, you wouldn't be at the computer. You know that. They don't. They think music is supposed to be in the background while they work. They're not thinking at all that music is something that is supposed to go in your body as Miles used to say. They're not thinking like that but it's not their fault.
AAJ: Did Miles say that?
JLJ: He says that, yeah, He used to say, like, "I didn't like that 'cause it didn't go in my body." That's like an old, old, old church type saying. That's what music does..it fills you up or lifts you up. I'm from a church family so I used to hear all that. That's just his stamp on that.
That's where I started playing, bass, in church with my mom. She played piano or organ and I had to play because my grandfather built the church! I played piano or organ too. My father was the superintendent of Sunday school and my uncles were the pastors. I had to be there, it wasn't a matter of, "Are you going to church?"
AAJ: Was that in Philly?
JLJ: Right near where I live now as a matter of fact. In Germantown. Providence Baptist Church, 87 East Haynes Street. I had to be there every day, not like Sunday. Fold the programs, help the ladies in the kitchen. It wasn't a thing to me. It was just someplace I had to be. I thought every kid had to be at someplace like that. I was just messing around with a guitar and my mother said, "Well you're playing bass next week in church." I didn't have a bass. She just told me who to borrow one from!
AAJ: Those gospel bands you see on TV have some happening bass players.
JLJ: This was not a band. It was my mom... and me! We were the band! It wasn't even like, "Do you know this tune?" It was, "Follow me." That kind of hardcore thing. Later, when I was playing with Eddie Green at Carter's up on Staten and Washington Lane or whatever it came in handy when they just started playing. "Do you know this tune? No? You better know it by the time we get to 4!" So you learn a lot of stuff on the gig you might not learn in your theory class or whatever, but it all works together if you don't lose your mind.
AAJ: Are you a big ear player? Or do you know a lot of theory, too?
JLJ: At one point I did. It hardly ever comes together. I always wanted to be some kind of session guy, or so I thought, or a producer. I was reading and practicing every day but I wasn't getting any gigs. And then the first gigs I got, there were no charts. It would just be, "Play something funky!" So you had to have all of it. It was never a case of having a funky chart or somebody explaining it in such detail that you understood the part. That's the history of R'n'B anyway. It's usually some guy making $20 or $50 that came up with the great part. I remember when I met Sugar Bear (Michael "Sugar Bear" Foreman), the bassist who did, probably most of, those historic Philly International songs from the 60s and 70s. I remember someone said something like, "This is a young boy, Jef. Got any words of advice for him?" He told me to quit before it's too late. He was sitting there with his bass-and a bottle-and he said, "What do you think of this?" And he played the descending bass line from "Bad Luck?" He said, "Who wrote that?" I said Gamble and Huff. He said, "Well, Gamble and Huff didn't come up with that bass line! I did!." When you think of that linethat's the song, and you don't think of Sugar Bear. But that's history. I mean I've played on a couple people's records where I didn't necessarily play a signature like that, but I played some stuff, got my check and went home..whatever. Again, not good or bad..it just is and you just have to find your way to exist without losing it. Some cats can just lose it. If your threshold is down there, you will lose it.
AAJ: You probably couldn't play a lot of music if you were holding on to that stuff.
JLJ: Well, if you keep your threshold high you can deal with this or that and make it to the point where you can hopefully do something that makes some people, like me at sixteen go, "Whoa man, who is this guy?" For me, that was people like Edwin Birdsong, Stanley Clarke, Maxanne. By the way, Maxanne was a nasty, funk R'n' B artist who sang in a band by the same name. On some level, you can't explain the impact music like this makes on our lives. You have to live through it. You can't explain to some kid how Hendrix used the wah-wah pedal or Miles did whatever, you have to know how it came about.
AAJ: And transcended it.
JLJ: Yeah, but at the time they didn't know they were doing anything transcendent. To them, they were just playing some music. They were just doing what the voices in their head were telling them to do. You can hear it when they do it. They did, and I try to do...gravitate towards things..certain harmonies..certain sounds of your instrument...and they're not going to lie to you or mislead you..and if you're not afraid of 'em you go there and represent. And when some kid says, "Man, that was the most incredible mess I ever heard," and you can look 'em in the eye and say, "OK, what are you gonna do about it kid?," that's how the chain keeps goin.' Michael Bland was wondering if there were still any kids that react to music like that? I hope so.
AAJ: You're going to run into a few if you start gigging with those guys! (laughs)
JLJ: Let's hope that happens, with all the guys. The community should be like that. I'm going to be naive enough to wake up during the time it's not happening' to think that maybe that's the day it's going to come together, because I can't think of it any other way, even for the most part I know its whack.
If the right people find each other, some good stuff happens. It doesn't happen as often as it should, or maybe even as often as it did, but it does happen. Ted and I were just talking and we said, "Well, what if it didn't happen?" If I was convinced of that I'd go get a nose job and some liposuction and become a crooner I guess. (laughs) But really, the good stuff keeps happening on a continuing basis. There hasn't been a gig that Ted and Charles and I have done that hasn't been a lofty level. Rehearsals are on that level. And that's the way it should be. Ted is not necessarily an avant or whatever you want to call it guy, but he does his version of that and gets right into it. He doesn't fear it.
AAJ: What would have to happen for you guys to mount a 20 date east coast tour?
JLJ: Simple-some tour manager would have to come along and book the dates. I have no management at the moment. I don't do it well. I'm too busy trying to do the music. I can only get a date at the Knitting Factory or in Philly. In France, a local promoter takes care of those dates. If somebody came along that was into the music, and had a few things booked, we'd be there.
AAJ: You must have some conflicts yourself with everyone your working with.
JLJ: No, it's all music there is no conflict. If I get a string of gigs, then I'll do them. Especially as far as Rachelle is concerned. She had me opening up for her at one point. It was just too weird for the people, that's all. She wanted people to hear this music, but it was like Hendrix opening for the Monkees...kinda odd (laughs).
I hate to keep bringing his name up. Ironically, there was a guy in England, a road manger for Rachelle, that actually was in England when Hendrix first came over and he was kind of the roadie. I just got a letter from him today about how happy he was about the French cd and a couple of things in Europe and to remember that things take time and to not get excited..not that I was anyway. Keeping me in check (laughs). He said, "Jimi didn't happen overnight," and stuff. It's weird, because they never talk to me about that stuff on the gig. They allude to it. I'm not a star guy. I think of myself as more of the goofy guy that writes these weird little tunes that people think are cute. So, we'll see. As far as any synchronicity or serendipity we'll see. If I'm around and someone wants me to play..I'll play.
AAJ: Can you take me through some of the time line and some of the folks you played with? Was your first major gig with Shannon?
JLJ: Actually, my first major gigs were together. I was playing with McCoy Tyner and Sister Sledge at the same time! To my knowledge, I'm one of four guitarists who played with McCoy, the others being Earl Klugh, Santana and Jean-Paul Bourelly. This was 1980 or 81. I once went from Sister Sledge gig to a McCoy Tyner gig! And I was kind of doing the gigs in the same head, just different notes. It was funny. Actually a little bit before that I did a James Cleveland thing..gospel. And I was a Drell for a minute, for maybe two gigs
AAJ: Archie Bell and the Drells?
JLJ: Yeah, there were a lot of gigs like that- Blue Magic and the Flamingoes. Late seventies. Harold Melvin, There was an Atlantic City mess and I played a few gigs with Aretha. I did Letterman for a minute.
AAJ: You were in the Letterman band? I'm flabbergasted.
JLJ: Yeah, for like a month and a half. I never held gigs for like a really long time.
AAJ: Just subbing for Hiram or before?
JLJ: He had gotten fired for the last time, so that was like a transition point. After Hiram and before Sid McGinnis, in '84. I did some gigs with Chaka and some gigs with Roberta Flack. Chaka's where I met Michael (Bland) actually. The D (Angelo) thing was later.
AAJ: When was Ronald Shannon Jackson?
JLJ: That was late 80's, maybe 87 when I started playing with him.
AAJ: You played on a killing Jamaaladeen Tacuma record.
JLJ: Yeah, one. "Dreamscape."
AAJ: That's a great record on DIW again. Hard to get..
JLJ: That's my M/O. "I can never find this guy." There were some weird ones too. A Dionne Farris session. I don't know what happened with that. Billy Joel.
AAJ: Billy Joel?
JLJ: Yeah, I'm on "River of Dreams"
JLJ: Yeah, I'm playing bass on there. There's like three bass players and they made one track out of it.
AAJ: I wanted to make sure to mention that first Ben Schachter CD I love you in that downtown kind of bag.
JLJ: That's a real good record. Like the cuts where he wanted two basses. I'll do what I can. The weird thing to me was the tuning of the basses. Everybody was listening to each other on a scary level. But then again, that's how it should be. That goes back to the original part of our conversation. Conditioning. People see music more than they hear it these days. We should be a bit more strong than we are and depend on other people to do the right thing with us.
AAJ: So what did you pick up from your experience with McCoy?
JLJ: Well, you pick up everything everywhere if you're paying attention. The thing with playing with McCoy and Eddie Green is they collectively got me playing the claw style, like Jerry Reed. It's kind of a berserk jackin' style, a little more radical than Chet Atkins' rigid jackin.' They taught me the difference between striking a chord on piano and strumming it on guitar. Usually, when you strike a piano, you're striking simultaneously and with a guitar you're strumming across. To strike simultaneously with guitar, you have to claw it.
AAJ: So are you playing with all the fingers on the right hand when you comp?
JLJ: I have a pick and sometimes I'm pickin' and sometimes I'm not, but if I thought about it I'd probably confuse myself because I've just been doing it for so long.
AAJ: So pick and the fingers at the same time?
JLJ: Yeah, it's also a Southern thing. They call it "disappearing pick." After a while you don't think about it. McCoy, when he was doing a massive chordal thing he would wave me on to play with him. So I'm standing there going, "OK, you either have to figure out something to play with this, or stand here and look stupid, so what's it gonna be?" I had to figure out how to voice like him, around him, over him and under him.
AAJ: Were you playing smaller, three note voicings, when you played with him?
JLJ: Sometimes. And sometimes I was playing almost exactly what he was playing if I could figure it out.
AAJ: In unison?
JLJ: It was like a "Wall of Sound" thing in an abstract sense. He was for whatever reason, like, "C'mon, Play!"
AAJ: I mean, Mc Coy is known for his deep chord concepts. Berklee has whole courses of study on his techniques and his theories of harmony.
JLJ: Yeah, well I had course every night. Instant courses (laughs). It was like, put up or shut up. I think that's what he was doing.
AAJ: How'd you hook up with him?
JLJ: Auditions. I went and got the gig. He was trying something out. He had just done a record with Santana, Phyllis Hyman and Stanley Clarke, so they were looking for a guitarist. Bobby Broom did a gig, I remember. I did about eight.
AAJ: Do you currently gig locally in Philly more than other places?
JLJ: No. I've been on the road, pretty much, for the last two years. That's what I have to do if I want to pay the mortgage. I don't even know what's going on locally. Rechelle was a good while, D was almost a year. James Carter. Rob Reddy did a little tour, which was cool. The Montreux All-Stars was with Sanborn, Joe Sample, George Duke, Al Jarreau and Roberta Flack. That went out twice in the past two years. Lalah Hathaway was on one also. She's one of my favorites. Everybody is together on that. One band. Everybody comes up and does their tunes. At one point literally everyone is out at the same time. George is the MC and picks the band. That was the deal with the Miles tribute thing because he's the resident over there, so...
AAJ: Yeah he's the "Montreux guy."
JLJ: We did a tribute to Serge Gainsborough the year before the Miles one. I also did some gigs with Roberta as a sub. I was playing bass.
AAJ: So who are some of your favorite rhythm sections?
JLJ: Well, I love playing with Michael Bland, and Jon Roberts who is with George. Actually, the last gig was with Jon and Chris McBride. That's who did the record.
JLJ: Jon's another Philly boy. He's Steve Ford's nephew, who is like the gospel producer god here. He's in that crossover crew. Brian Moore is another one. They both moved to Atlanta from Philly.
AAJ: Who's the crossover crew?
JLJ: They're like church drummers who have this really bizarre style of playing drums. It's based on an old R'n'B-ish thing, similar to what James Jamerson did to R'n'B bass. It's almost like a bebop interpretation of R'n'B but it was the way he did it that made it another thing. Like on "Midnite train to Georgia" and "Grapevine," he is playing some really berserk stuff, man. That's what these drummers do. I am only talking about drummers though. Let's see, on bass, Reggie Washington and Chico Huff. As far as other instruments, Jim Ridl is a great pianist.
AAJ: Oh yeah he plays with Martino. He's a nice pianist.
JLJ: He's beyond a nice pianist man. We were going to do a trio record with him playing left hand synth or organ and I was going to play bass and guitar. We'll see. It's all up to me. My mind is shredded wheat, If I can hang in there, and they can put up with me, then we'll do it.
AAJ: It sounds like you're hanging in there.
JLJ: My mess is ..sometimes, I'm not here. I don't even know how I'm doing it, actually.
AAJ: A critic trying to describe your playing, especially when taliking about your chordal style or chord fragments, or shorter burst of single-note stuff, would say "angular." Do you know what I'm talking about?
JLJ: Yes, I've heard that term before. And I think it comes from the elements of my style that evolve out of Monk, Jan Hammer and Wayne Shorter. Even some Ella Fitzgerald. Even Zawinul.
AAJ: Is it intervallic?
JLJ: Well, the theory is the base. You're supposed to communicate on all levels not just the funny words and melodies that fit over the chords. It's supposed to be a dialogue with the people back at the bar, who have no idea of theoretical concepts, stop between sips and go "hmm," and relate to it on some level. That's what it's all about. It's not supposed to be inaccessible or, "hey look what I can do." This is for us. All of us. If you've ever watched the series "The Prisoner" there was a sign on the compound that said. "Music begins where words end" or something like that. That's the way I was brought up. Music is supposed to be for people who can't sing or can't play to bring them into that. It's not supposed to alienate.
AAJ: So you come at it from a very non-technical perspective?
JLJ: Well, the technical is the basis. But its supposed to be emotional. We're in the emotion business. We're in the feel business. That's not negating anything else either. If you want to be a Diva or a primadonna fine. But I want to be a musician and I want people to be into the music just as much as I am and was when I was ..like I said, 14 and 15 listening to the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Rufus! There was nobody around saying I couldn't listen to that, or Funkadelic or Bach in the same sitting. I wasn't thinking about whether loud guitars were supposed to be up front or how the violas and violins came together, I was thinking about how it was all affecting me, and it was affecting me in a good way. The musicians are responsible for putting it over so people will feel that..so they'll laugh or cry. That's what it's supposed to be and on a level where you're not crying or laughing because you are sad or happy..you are just feeling, you know- maybe both at the same time.
AAJ: Amazing how you're saying this but you are working at the absolute highest levels technically. Reading charts with the George Dukes and James Carters of the world. But yet you're putting across an emotional thing.
JLJ: I don't know if they think the same. George is, as you say, at the ultimate level of technical musicianship but he's from a different school. But we can both speak in the same situation. Neither looks down on the other's approach. I look up to him and he tells me I've become his favorite guitarist. That's another "Put up or shut up," like McCoy. My reading over the years, for example, has been sloppy, but I'm going to make it music regardless. George knows that and he's counting on me to do that. James is from another school, but we have the same determination that we're going to make music out of the sum of our parts. I am going to come into these sessions and hit them as hard as humanly possible and they know that.
AAJ: Are you more focused on your own thing or the sideman thing?
JLJ: I have to work with other people to make a living, but if the day comes I can pay the cats and me money for doing my music, that's what I'd want to do.
AAJ: Anyone you'd love to work with you haven't yet?
JLJ: Y'know, someone brought over that Jan Hammer video, "In the Mind's Eye," so I got the cds and went out and got "Melodies" again. Then I realized all over again how great he is. I was trying to get a thing together with Anthony Jackson and Michael Bland. Now that sounds great conceptually, but you never really know how it would work until you got in there and did it.
AAJ: So what would I take for a small label to get you? I mean some of these small labels are merely paying for the artist's recording date and for distributing the record. The artist gets no "fee." Or if they do it's a token amount.
JLJ: That's what the deal was with DIW. In my case, any of that little bit would help. The records I'm doing with Dreambox, I have to pay to make and then Jim takes care of the rest.
AAJ: There are many small labels who might pay for guys to do recordings, but they won't pay on top of that.
JLJ: I don't know how they operate, but it seems to me they have the money, and I'm not quite sure how they go about using it. I'm just figuring out how to do what I'm going to do. Do I use plastic, do I take a gig? Or they raised my mortgage! Whatever. At this point it's all so meaningless. I am just concerned about putting the music out. That's what my wife would say. "Just do the music and shut up. It's what we do." She wouldn't put it necessarily in that crude way, but... or as George would say, "If it ain't right it's wrong." So by all means if its right, let's be about it.