Interview with Musician John Lee of The Electric Trio, Playing Monday Nights at Tryst Café
I met John Lee after a set at Tryst Café. His band The Electric Trio is phenomenal. I especially appreciated their jazz cover of The Cure songs. He shared his musical inspiration, his favorite venues to play in the DC area, and what’s next for his musical aspirations.
Marlene: When did your interest in music start?
John: I remember at a very young age being very affected by music. One of my first memories was hearing,”We Built This City” with my two brothers. I remember whatever we were doing instantly changed when the song came on, and all of a sudden we went to another imaginary world: jumping around, singing, and dancing. We were purely in the moment. This was one of my first memories of music, and I was aware that it had a huge power over myself and my brothers’ imagination and emotions.
Where is your favorite place to play music in DC?
I don’t have a particular place, but some of my greatest memories were playing at Iota, Artisphere, Bohemian Caverns, Velvet Lounge, and Bossa Bistro.
What are you listening to now?
I’m listening right now to a trombonist named Hal Crook because he’s the author of some books I’ve been practicing from that deal with improvisation. I’m also listening to Hindustani vocal music, and checking out some Moroccan Gnawa music of Hassan Hakmoun. At the moment Hasaan booked me to travel with him and play. We just headlined Toronto’s Kick Up Your Heels Festival and are playing in Chicago and Detroit this week.
Who are some of your musical influences?
All the music a typical American kid growing up would phase through that was born around 1980: Rap, Glam Rock, Heavy Metal, Grunge Rock, then Classic Rock. My Irish ancestry played a large part in my talent and playing music, singing and dancing are natural attributes which my extended family displayed during their last visit from Ireland.
How would you describe your music?
Simply, I take pieces of every style of music that I have studied and loved and basically mix them all together in a big stew. I spent many years playing Jazz and improvised music so those particular elements are in the broth.
What are your goals and dreams with your music?
Right now my goal is to take care and provide for my future wife and child by playing and teaching music. My Dream is to provide for my future wife and child playing my own music.
What instruments do you play?
I am proficient and play many styles of the guitar such as: Jazz, African, Brazilian, Folk, Country, Classical, Heavy Metal, Blues, Irish, and the list goes on. I play many different types of guitars, as well as many, many effects pedals. I also play a little bit of Harmonica and am open to learning to play new and old world music instruments.
Any advice for aspiring musicians?
I like this quote for aspiring musicians especially those who may have false illusions or get caught up in the allure of being regarded as a musician. “There is no middle class in music. If you want to be a professional musician you must practice 13 hours a day for 10 years,” Pandit Debashish Bhattacharya.
How do you practice?
Recently, I’ve been using my iPad. I can practice at much quieter volumes and it also has all my mp3s, sheet music, and a bunch of fancy apps that slow things down and more. It’s really a mobile workstation and everything I need is in the iPad. I can practice in a hotel room, my apartment, or backstage/green rooms. I also practice a lot while on the go. I use apps for singing while in my car, and on the plane I transcribe music and read theory books.
What’s the best show you’ve seen in DC?
Batsheva Israeli Dance Company came to The Kennedy Center last year. I really enjoyed it because of the composition, abstraction, and the way it ended with plunges off the wall to nice music.
What’s the best place to see music in DC?
Wolf Trap in Vienna and the 9:30 club.
Visit John Lee’s website.
Thanks to a few well-defined genres—jazz from Duke Ellington, alt-rock fusion from Fugazi and, of course, go-go from Chuck Brown—DC has made its name as a music town.
But, lately, DC has become an incubator for new sounds yet again. And if there’s an artist who represents this resurgence, it’s John Lee, a guitarist who has absorbed a range of influences to produce music that should weave its way into your road-trip playlist. The local virtuoso has studied free jazz extensively and steeped himself in everything from Jerry Garcia to Moroccan folk music. Lately, it’s been surf rock and the spaghetti Western movie scores of Ennio Morricone that have caught his attention.
Those diverse interests, and the versatility it’s created in his playing, have led him to gigs playing alongside reggae artist Matisyahu and legendary Brazilian jazz percussionist Cyro Baptista—at New York’s Lincoln Center, no less. “Cyro has taken me many wonderful places musically and geographically,” Lee says. “We went to Portugal a few years ago, and, most recently, we toured Brazil. The Lincoln
Center show was very intense. I really enjoy playing with him.”
Recalling his time playing with Baptista, Lee was struck by the complexity of the arrangements, which influences the sound of his new EP, The Nature Series. “I wrote the first song with a simple melody,” he remembers, and it all flowed from there. Meanwhile, the guitar sounds are laden with reverb and tremolo, like something out
of Django Unchained. “My music before was kind of scattered all over the place,” he says. “This… all goes together.”
But, through it all, you hear the experimental strain of jazz that Lee has honed after years in the clubs of U Street and Adams Morgan (he plays at JoJo on U Street every Tuesday when he’s not touring). While he says it can be tough for musicians to build a following in DC, he appreciates what the local jazz scene offers versus other cities: “I get calls to play with people who are known in the jazz world, and
I don’t know if I would get those calls anywhere else.”
Of course, Lee is now making a few calls of his own. Rather than the rotating cast of musicians who have rounded out his past efforts, he’s currently assembled a new quartet that he’s particularly excited about. “This really feels like a band,” he says. “And it’s with three guys I’m close to—my best friends.” Performing with The Tony Martucci Quintet, July 9, Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW, bluesalley.com
The Nature Series
Review by G. W. Hill
The blend of sounds here is intriguing. It’s all instrumental music and I’d have to say it’s progressive rock, more than it’s anything else. That said, there is more surf music in the mix here than a lot of prog purists would be comfortable with. Overall, whatever you call this short (less than half an hour) CD, it’s entertaining.
|Track by Track Review|
|In the Ground
OK, coming out of the gate, it has to be said that the main melodic hook of this one bears a lot of resemblance to REM’s “Man on the Moon.” In fact, so much so that I had to look to make sure this wasn’t a cover. Mind you, that’s sort of a starting point as this is an energetic rocker that’s essentially space rock. There are bits of fusion and surf music in the mix. All in all, it’s a killer instrumental with a lot of guitar pyrotechnics.
|In the Wind
The martial beat that opens this makes me think of Holst’s “Mars.” It’s not as clear cut a thing as the REM nod, though. As the guitar soloing comes over the top there is definitely a bit of a Ventures vibe here. There are other musical elements, though, that bring is closer to Yes-like progressive rock. There are some pretty intriguing twists and turns along this musical road.
A similar martial beat opens this. As the instruments come in over the top, though, it’s got a real space rock meets Rock In Opposition meets surf feeling to it. This is quite electronic at a lot of times.
|Return of the Frogs
This is pure progressive rock instrumental music. It’s a diverse and lush ride through a number of sounds and melodies. There is some more of the surf styled guitar in this, but this ride is far from surf music. It’s an intriguing piece and arguably the most effective one here. There are definitely some fusion related moments here, too. It gets pretty crazed at times.
|In the Ground (Reprise)
Here we get, as the title and parenthetical attest to, a reprise of the opening cut
Now this is a rather odd album, it took a while for me to get the music but now I do. John Lee is a jazz trained guitarist from Washington D.C and he can´t be accused of making the same album twice, he explored world music with his band Caveman that released two albums between 2002-2005. His debut solo "Somewhere impossible to find" was more of a blues oriented postrock affair while the new solo album "The nature series" is a blend of psychedelia, space rock, spaghetti western and jazz. John is an interesting guitarplayer and I find his work quite enjoyable, first you got to broaden your views before listening to this 5 track album. The opening track "In the ground" gives the listener a taste of 60´s guitar rock a la The Shadows while the following "In the wind" could´ve been penned by Ennio Morricone, very cool. The 3rd track "Vampire groove" sounds like Frank Zappa doing a piece with Hawkwind and even a touch of Radiohead on the side, my favorite is the more jazzrocking "Return of the frogs" where John is playing some serious six string work. If you like the Norwegian band Helldorado, you might dig this too.
This local guitarist had a successful run in a Philadelphia band called Caveman who dazzled many with its unique brand of experimental post rock music. Now, John Lee is an active local guitarist who sounds like he enjoys stretching barriers even further. This is fantastic instrumental landscape music that is fully inviting, yet has all sorts of creative edgy shifts within the melodic framework. As I so often bore people to death with, I thoroughly love music that is experimental and challenging, while retaining firm grasp of core musical forms. It is a delicate balancing act that many great artists have been able to maintain. And John Lee shows that here with fully twanged electric guitar painting the Leone/Morricone landscape, while there are mad keyboard, guitar, and percussive bursts to take this to Dali-land.
>> GUITARIST JOHN LEE SHOWCASES DIVERSE SONGS WITH LOCAL SUPPORT
Guitarist John Lee brings a jazz powerhouse to the Otter House
|Guitarist John Lee, known for his work with Caveman and other local projects, gets center stage at tomorrow's show.
Erika Horn/Cozmik Photography
Visit the Photo Place
Date published: 2/11/2010
BY JONAS BEALS
Local music fans probably know that Bistro Bethem is the place to be on the first Friday night of every month. That's when Jay Starling gathers a group of heavyweights to slam through a set of jazz standards. Listeners tend to save their antic looks of disbelief for Washington, D.C.-based guitarist John Lee.
Lee will play with his own band--J.L.e--at The Otter House tomorrow. The lineup is similar to that of the Bistro Bethem gigs, with John Buck (Transmitters) on bass, Starling on keys and guitar, and Bruce Guttridge on drums. But they will focus on Lee's original compositions instead of standards.
"I love every style of music from country to classical to hardcore metal," Lee said. "I don't discriminate against the style. Every year, I'm discovering something new. Instead of playing that style, I try to incorporate it into my improvisation."
That attitude puts Lee squarely in the jazz camp, and he's content with that, even if his frequent dips into the avant-garde put him in the same pool as experimental artists like Jim O'Rourke and John Zorn.
Lee bills himself as the "Chinese Irishman," suggesting his genre-jumping passages are a natural extension of his own personal cultural mash-up. He has studied a number of world music forms in places like India, Israel and Switzerland, and he brings all of those influences, along with bread-and-butter American styles like blues and rock, to his compositions.
In Starling's band, Lee's solos typically start small and build to a bombastic crescendo. He said that listeners can expect even more energy (and shorter songs) during Friday's gig.
"I'm not very good at communicating with people," Lee said, "so I use music. I use notes. I'm ranting. Sometimes, it's preaching. Just preaching emotion."
While there are certainly jam-band elements in his euphoric noodling, Lee commands his instrument in a way that suggests an intellectual purpose beyond crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics.
"I dedicated a lot of my life to learning the instrument," he said. "And I love to improvise."
Lee has played jazz in Europe, where he found the audiences to be appreciative and knowledgeable about the genre. He enjoys playing in Fredericksburg for the same reasons.
"People in Fredericksburg kind of remind me of the European audiences," he said. "People at the Bistro are really listening. They come to hear the music."
Lee is a fixture in the Washington, D.C., jazz scene, and has played and studied with a number of notable figures in the field, including Kurt Rosenwinkel.
He also played with renowned percussionist Cyro Baptista (Paul Simon, Sting, Yo-Yo Ma), whom Lee counts among his heroes.
"The way he lives is so different than other people I know," Lee said. "We have to do things we don't want to do to survive. Since he's so successful, his life revolves around making creative music.
"That's exactly what I want to do. I can push myself and not be weighed down."
Three Stars: John Lee
Sunday, August 15
The weekend ends with a jazz-rock fusion set, courtesy of the Chinese Irishman. John Lee proudly refers to himself by his ethnicity, but it tells you nothing whatever about his bone-shearing guitar work that has stood him in good stead playing with sonic adventurers like John Zorn and Calvin Weston. But Lee is a Washington player, and if he’s got a hearty rock base he’s also got fiery jazz and ethereal tones up his sleeves—made manifest on his stunning debut record, this year’s Somewhere Impossible to Find. That album is made by Lee’s primary outlet, the John Lee Experience, a trio featuring bassist Steve Zerlin and drummer Bruce Guttridge. On Sunday, after a long series of gigs at home and abroad behind Cyro Baptista and Beat The Donkey, Lee returns the band to D.C. stages. It happens at 9 p.m. at Bossa, 2463 18th St. NW.
Before the World
- By Scott Snidow
You know the old adage about judging the book?! Yeah. How many times have we all heard this and how often do we actually put its wisdom to use? We all make snap judgements about people, things or situations on a regular basis. For some, this would be daily. As much as I hate to admit it, I, too, fall victim to this particular human frailty from time to time.
Such was the case when this CD arrived one day, knocking at the mailbox and sending the more "respectable" mail to the sanctuary of the porch floor. Ripping open the yellow, foam-padded envelope, I perused the material inside. One CD with garish colored, pseudo-primitive artwork on the cover. In bold, block letters was the wordCAVEMAN, and underneath the title of the work "Before the World." I flipped the jewel case over and read some of the titles. "The Call," "Grand Canyon," "Message From the Indians," "Whales," "Flowers," "Birth 1," "Frogjazz," "National Anthem for a Happy Nation." Oh great! Some publicist in some place like New York City is trying to get me to review some neo-hippie, resurrectionist, tree-hugging peace love dove stuff! Look, I lived this stuff back in the 70's, and I really don't need a bunch of "kids" preaching it to me musically today. I decided to glance over the enclosed press kit before sending the whole package to file thirteen. Hmmmimagine this. Praise from a writer who writes for an ezine that instantly concocts visions of rampant drug use. More from writers with publications that have similarly "groovy" titles. Ohand a glowing tribute from a "festival promoter." You know, those guys who have never left the 60's to join the rest of us in the next friggin' century. Come on. This stuff would be right up their alley. So, away to a dusty of corner of the office it was sent, there to remain for a few months while I went about the business of being busy.
What was it your first grade teacher tried time and again to tell you about book judging?
I don't know exactly what it was that made me pick up this CD a few weeks back. Perhaps plain simple old curiosity, perhaps a flight from job related stress. Perhaps it was the fact that my reading led me to the realization that the members of this quartet were thoroughly trained in jazz at The New School University in New York. Who knows? But I did. Pensively I slipped it into the CD player and pressed the play button. What unfolded before me were some really good, solid performances of some really modern, interpretive jazz. It was like watching, or should I say, hearing, a great work of impressionist art unfolding on a musical canvas.
Please, though, don't be misled by my slightly over-enthusiastic analogy. This is not that hoity-toity overbearing style of jazz whose aficionados tell you that listeners have to "develop an ear" to appreciate. Not at all. (Remember that thing about not judging the book, folks.) This is a pure, simple, honest style of the genre that actually rivets the listener's attention without training. It incorporates a myriad of music styles and sounds. There are hints of "World" music. You know, the term employed by pundits for music that contains elements of African, European, and Middle Eastern rhythms. Shades of Indian and Far Eastern sounds are heard as well. But there are also heavy doses of blues, rock, western jazz, and even tinges of new age music. This is all snowballed together into one concise package.
The music itself evokes images in the mind's eye of the listener. After all, isn't that what interpretive jazz should do? And somehow, I couldn't help but feel that there was a message here. The titles are the cues, and the music clearly spells out the rest of the story. This is a music that comes from a philosophy and a spirit that embraces the basest elements of human existence. It tells the story of a mankind perishing in a suburban quagmire. Of nature being over-run by man. But through it all there is a note of hope, a hope that, through a collective awareness, mankind can return the celestial ship that is earth back to an even keel. And while the basic message of Before the World may appeal to some of those neo-hippies, the telling is so much fresher than any I have heard. There is a darkness to this music, and at the same time a sense of humor. There is a wit and a wisdom, but above all this is honest, rock solid music performed by some very gifted musicians.
So let the lesson be learned. You can't judge a book, or for that matter, a CD, by its cover.