Thursday, January 31, 2013

R.I.P. Jef Lee Johnson

The guitarist Jef Lee Johnson passed on Monday in his hometown of Philadelphia. He was 54.

Looking at his extensive discography, I realize that he played on an album by singer Miles Jaye that I had back at the ass-end of the '80s. But while his C.V. included sessions and tours with a long list of artists ranging from Rev. James Cleveland to McCoy Tyner to Esperanza Spalding, I only knew of him through his '90s work as a member of Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society.

Shannon remembers him this way:

"I'm a short dark skin ugly Black man". This is what Jef Lee Johnson use to tell me, with that no nonsense look of his, when I was trying to get him to come out of his hotel rooms in Le Mans and Rennes France. I had to go out and bring him food so that he would have enough energy to play the concerts. 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. 

Jef Lee first appeared on record with Shannon on 1990's Red Warrior, in a blazing guitar triumverate (the other two guitarists were Stevie Salas and Jack DeSalvo) that imbued Shannon's melodies with the cry of the blues. On 1993's Raven Roc, he spearheaded Shannon's most rock-oriented ensemble, a two-guitars-bass-and-drums lineup that also included guitarist Dave "Fuse" Fiuczynski, while on 1995's What Spirit Say, he's featured in another stripped-down quartet with multi-reedman James Carter and bassist Ngolle Pokossi.

My own favorite bit of recorded Jef Lee comes from Shannon's 1997 album Shannon's House, recorded in Fort Worth with a band that included locals Thomas Reese and Rachella Parks. On a version of the "African-American national anthem" "Lift Every Voice and Sing," Jef Lee deconstructs the familiar melody the way Sonny Rollins might re-imagine a Tin Pan Alley standard or Hendrix did "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock, filling every interstice with blues-drenched testimony and squealing harmonics. It's a virtuoso performance and a fitting epitaph for the man who created it.


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