I can’t remember the last time I had such a profound reaction to a guitar player than when I heard Jef Lee Johnson in 2010. Not in 30 years or more had a fellow guitarist made me feel like I had discovered the musical Holy Grail. Yes, I’d had lesser seismic stirrings as a kid upon hearing, Benson, Wes and Pat Martino, …but—this was the musical motherlode!
What struck me most as I delved into the world of Jef Lee Johnson, the vast body of work that is his musical legacy, is that it seemed limitless in its embodiment of all things Black Music. Much like the aesthetic itself, its extentions reached in and firmly gripped classic and acid rock, while titillating other styles as the free-spirited composer saw fit. And what a composer he was! Not bound in any way stylistically (within the aesthetic realm that he inhabited), his compositions always contained enough of him—his dreamy, thoughtful lyrics, Pop-defying musical idiosyncrasies, life-or-death urgency in feel or groove, authenticity to the style and deft guitar and bass playing—that no two songs, regardless of polarity, sounded out of place or in opposition.
I first heard Jef while trolling the web late one night. I stumbled on some guys playing a version of Herbie’s Watermelon man on the old Black Entertainment Television show, Studio Jams, where they would assemble random musicians… Who was this guitar player who seemed more interested in keeping his part nice and tight and was gently overseeing the band to make sure that the whole presentation was right? Then seemingly out of nowhere, he takes this most unassuming, yet most killing solo, playing a little of this and that and in the most personal way, saying a little something that any and everyone would want to play. From there I was just about hooked, so I downloaded his recording “Blue” (1995) and that sealed the deal. Fan for life! On that record, his first, there was anthem-rock, folksy, bottle-neck slide blues, single-line and chord solos over funky, jazz changes and more. A music critic’s dream or nightmare, depending on their intentions! Then and there he became my all-time favorite, all-around, genre-splitting guitarist. He played like, “aww, what the heck,” and to me, he sounded like everyone of the best of them would sound if they were all one and could be that free.
After checking out his bio (McCoy Tyner, Billy Joel, Quest Love, Chaka Khan, Erica Badu, Paul Shaffer’s David Letterman Band, Esperanza Spaulding, George Duke, Terrence Blanchard, DeAngelo, Stanley Clarke…) and speaking to my musician friends who travel in those circles, I felt like the odd man out. Why hadn’t anyone told me about him??!!! I proceeded to make up for lost time by acquiring several of his recordings under his own name. I’m only about halfway through with 6 or 7 records. Although his known recordings as a leader weren’t released until he was in his 30s, he managed to be quite prolific, releasing several ‘double-record’ sets, sometimes with as many as 30 songs.
There is so much of Jef Lee Johnson to discover musically—so many vistas he invites you to imagine and ideas to mull over. Over the past 3 years, I became intimately aware of these landscapes and airwaves of his, yet as with all great artists, his music always invites me to go deeper to find its newfound parts—his lyrics so vivid and so vast.
She’s got the whole thing covered,
all day, all night, all things to me
So much yet undiscovered,
as far as every eye can see
(from Hype Factory‘s, “Sky”)
When he died last year I felt as though I had lost a loved-one. It was really uncanny how deeply I felt the “loss” of somebody I’d never known, let alone never met. I kicked myself because I’d had an opportunity one summer earlier which I passed up on due to excuses. “I’ll meet him another time…”, I reasoned. The feeling of sadness seemingly would not go away that easily after he passed. And then one evening I eagerly sat down to read a newly republished, 12 page interview of his on the internet. Way into it on page 11, the interviewer asked how he got the gig with McCoy Tyner and Jef Lee went on to explain the circumstances and process, when he says “…McCoy was looking for a guitarist…Bobby Broom did a gig, I remember…” For the record, I have never, ever played with McCoy. But for me, reading that statement from him was the weirdest form of closure. It was as though the universe was telling me through him, it’s okay, it’s not over, we’ll meet again.
Thanks Jef Lee Johnson for being the best at accomplishing the purpose of music and for reminding me that great music cannot be measured in notes, words or accomplishments.