Since guitarist and Philadelphia-native Jef Lee Johnson’s passing in 2013, Lili Añel has taken it upon herself to keep Jef Lee’s memory alive the best way she knows how—by playing his music.
Añel, a singer-songwriter and guitarist who’s released seven albums of her own, is no stranger to WRTI listeners and their finely tuned ears. You can already find three videos from last year’s live performance at WRTI’s Performance Studio on our VuHaus channel. This week, you’ll be able to find a fourth, a musical tribute to Jef Lee Johnson.
Añel was introduced to Jef Lee, and his music about a decade ago, through the suburban Philly studio (Morningstar Studios in Spring House) where she was recording 2009’s Every Second in Between. The recommendation from the folks at Moringstar: you’ve got to have this guy play on your record.
It didn’t take Añel long to discover why Jef Lee was so strongly endorsed. Known for years in industry circles as the consummate “musician’s musician,” Johnson had what Añel likes to call “incredible song sensibilities.”
“It could be a metal song calling for bagpipes and he wouldn’t miss a beat,” said Añel
“He’d just be like, ‘Alright, count it out,’ and he’d nail it.”
Jef Lee's musicianship and musical sensibilities transcended genre and, philosophically, he didn't find it necessary to handicap good music by labeling it. Once, when he was asked to describe “jazz,” he said: “The word doesn’t matter, the music matters— and if the music’s happenin, then life is happenin.”
It was that attitude, that ability to literally plug-in anywhere and groove with anyone, that made Jef Lee Johnson an indispensable session player for everyone from Jeff Beck to D'Angelo, from Common and The Roots to Stanley Clarke and Esperanza Spalding.
And yet, for as in-demand a studio musician as Jef Lee was, most don't realize just how extensive his own discography is. "Jef Lee's output as a recording artist was prolific, prodigious,” said Añel. “He was just very low-key, very humble about it."
So much so that family members worried whether Jef Lee would be properly remembered.
The day of the funeral, Jef Lee's brother asked Lili Anel: "Are you going to take him with you?" Knowing exactly what he meant, she said: "If they're gonna hear me, they're gonna hear him."
When Lili's performance of Jef Lee's "Traffic Jam in a One Horse Town" hits WRTI's VuHaus channel this week, you'll hear them both.
Originally, Añel hadn’t even planned for “Traffic Jam…” to be a part of last year’s live set at WRTI’s Performance Studio. And then, after recording the first three tunes, Lili and the band organically broke into “Traffic Jam….” After which, WRTI jazz host J. Michael Harrison turned to Lili and deadpanned, “We’ve got to find a way to get that on [to WRTI’s VuHaus channel].”
Spoiler alert: they’ve found a way. You can hear all about how it came to be on this Friday night’s episode of The Bridge (10pm-2am); J. Michael will air a recently recorded interview with Ms. Añel and Jef Lee’s sisters, Judy and Joanne, that is not to be missed.
No doubt, the story behind Lili performing this particular song will be touched upon.
Here’s a little preview: In “Traffic Jam’s…” original version, Jef Lee pops in and out of a feathery falsetto; in Lili’s take, her rangy contralto allows her to match the original key in which Jef Lee sang.
It’s one of those minor miracles unique to music—Lili Añel literally singing in the key of Jef Lee.
Matt Silver is a writer, radio host, recovering J.D., and jazz fanatic whose own saxophone playing can most aptly be described as somewhere between not altogether hopeless and delightfully adequate. He lives and works in Philadelphia.