Guitarist Jef Lee Johnson is well-known as a session musician, playing for everyone from pop stars like Aretha Franklin and Billy Joel, to smooth jazz vocalists like Phyllis Hyman and Rachelle Ferrell, to fearless experimentalists like Ronald Shannon Jackson and McCoy Tyner. (He even has a mid-’80s stint as the lead guitarist in Paul Shaffer’s World’s Most Dangerous Band, the house band for Late Night With David Letterman, under his belt.) His solo albums, starting with 1996’s Blue, are equally wide-ranging affairs, veering from straightforward pop songs to guitar-noise experiments that recall both Sonny Sharrock and Sonic Youth.
Born in Philadelphia, Johnson was raised in a musical family, claiming early influences as diverse as Herb Alpert, Eric Dolphy, and Vanilla Fudge. Discovering ’70s fusion and then electric Chicago blues as a teenager, Johnson was inspired to take up guitar in earnest, first playing in garage bands with his friends, then moving to New York to take session and live gigs. When working with free jazz drummer Jackson in the early ’90s, Johnson came to the attention of Jackson’s A&R man, who signed him to a solo deal. His first album, 1996’s Blue, was compiled from several years’ worth of one-man band demo cassettes, and its extreme musical variety made the singer/guitarist difficult to pigeonhole.
Johnson’s solo career has never been his primary focus, as his time as a session musician has expanded to including engineering and production duties for a variety of acts; but he followed up with 1998’s Communion, 2000’s The Singularity, and the 2001 double-disc set Hype Factory, which was quickly followed by the brand-new Saint Somebody. Also in 2001, Johnson released a trio album, News From the Jungle, with Sonny Thompson and Michael Bland. Johnson passed away from pneumonia complications on Jan. 28, 2013.