Yesterday we learned that beloved and respected guitarist Jef Lee Johnson passed away at the age of 54, depriving the music world of an impeccable instrumentalist and improviser. As a lynchpin of both the Soultronics and the Soulquarians, it would be insufficient to say he ‘played with D’Angelo‘. He did. He also played guitar for The Roots Phrenology, Erykah Badu‘s Mama’s Gun, Common‘s Like Water For Chocolate and Electric Circus, Brother Ali’s Undisputed Truth, collaborated with fusion legend George Duke and was touring with Esperanza Spalding when he passed. There are, of course, many other great pieces of music on his extensive resume but it would be simpler, perhaps, to say that he helped shape the evolving sound we associate with the word ‘Okayplayer’. A much better testament to his body of work than critical categorization, however, is the incalculable respect of the musicians and professionals he worked alongside. As D’Angelo tour manager Alan Leeds told us, speaking on behalf of Team D’Angelo:
“Jef Lee Johnson was so many things. To those of us in the D’Angelo camp, Jef Lee was an amazingly gifted guitarist who toured the world in 2000 as a member of the Soultronics and just last year brilliantly substituted for Jesse Johnson in our current band, the Vanguard – becoming one of only two musicians to appear in both bands .
A gentle musical giant, it always struck me that Jef Lee was “cursed” with so much imaginative creativity that he couldn’t be constrained by the r&b and pop genres. Left to his own devices, Jef Lee’s talent soared beyond his guitar strings into uncharted territory. He was sadly under-recognized by the general public but the music world lost a major force and we lost a friend. Jef Lee’s survivors and friends are in our prayers.” - Alan Leeds, D’Angelo and the Vanguard
As drummer Adam Guth put it to Philadelphia’s City Paper in 2010:
“While others play clichés — George Benson lines, Van Halen licks — Jef plays cosmic singularities, exploding worlds and post-apocalyptic terra-forming. At the center of it all is a sensitive being and positive spirit intent on being a force for good.”
Another heartfelt testimonial came from ?uestlove himself who shared this via his facebook page:
“The one crucial element of my poster is Soulquarian/Soultronic member Jef Lee Johnson who passed away tonight. his axe game was BAR NONE. i mean i cant talk enough about what it meant to be a Soultronic back in 2000. it was like 14 small elements giving *just enough* to make us a mighty unit. THAT is what is missing in musicianship today. this highlight reel generation wants to outplay each other and the gel NEVER happens. the less The Soultronics did the more perfect we became. jef was —-god i mean i know its blasphemous to bring up and H word or the Z word or even the S word when it came to guitarists. and as i type this—that is so unfair. but DAMN if JLJ wasn’t on that NEXT level. the proudest night of my life was watching PRINCE sit jaw dropped as we finalized JLJ’s guitar solo on the highly underrated “Jimi Was A Rockstar” (i can be objectionable on my own work right?)—-i’ll admit, i felt an immense amount of guilt the year his wife passed away. she had did some saxaphone work on this chris rock project we were working on with amel. she was on the way to our office to handle paperwork when her car collided with another car. he was never the same after that and man—i just….i felt so horrible and it ate me up for the longest. you know how people get with death sometimes, you feel awkward cause you don’t know how to comfort them and the next thing you know you are avoiding them at all cost. i kept internalizing it like “why couldn’t i just paid her under the table instead of the w9 stuff?”—i know this is going off the rails but…i do this sometimes in the heat of the moment. —its took a good two years of therapy before i was able to come to grips and deal with brother jef again. i heard he hadn’t picked his axe up in some months and was severely depressed. i decided to man up the situation and place a call to see how he was doing. it was rough cause that voice kept coming back to me like “see….he blames you ahmir….”—he actually made it easy on me and said that he heard i was looking for him to do some axe work on some projects. i sheepishly asked if he wanted to do it (and damn near talked myself outta it) he assured me he would love to do it. actually he kicked it like he needed to do it. he came to electric lady two nights later….and i dunno….maybe james and russ can confirm (i think ben was there too….) but…man….he just…man even just thinking about it. —most people (well roots “purists” as in the fanbase that wanted us to stay in our “post tribe”/quasi dilla mode)—most supporters have always made “Water” on Phrenology a hard pill to swallow (same for Common’s “Jimi” which he did a week later)—i know the general synopsis of Phrenology’s “Water” was the hell that it was being a co dependent for someone with a drug habit. and it is a horrific 11 mins to listen to.—but not as painful as it was to make. Jef was like “what do you want me to do?” (i had laid a preliminary down with ben, hub, and james blood ulmer earlier but it was missing….something) i simply told jeff “make that guitar bleed within an inch of its soul”—he walked into the dark and ….jesus. it was clearly a therapeutic moment for him. like i could hear his grief and mourning in that guitar solo. completely jaw dropped. i didnt even know how to receive or deal with it. what was just gonna be a colorful dark transition closer to sun ra, suddenly became a 3 way fight tween pharaoh sanders/rahsaan roland kirk/and rufus harley—except with electric ferociousness. he was angry. he was sad. he was celebrating.—he just walked back into the control room and was “like that?”—yes jef! like that. rest in peace my brother!”
And from the Okayplayer/Revivalist crew as well: Rest In Peace, JLJ