John Lee The Artist
Cellar Music Group
Okay, this writer confesses to a bias toward Cory Weeds’ Cellar Music Group. (see Grant Stewart Quartet) They just continue to issue great recordings as exemplified here by the debut as a leader for 28-year-old bassist and multi-instrumentalist John Lee from Vancouver. The Artist is a straight-ahead, swinging trio/quartet session featuring Lee on bass with renowned drummer Carl Allen, Canadian piano great Miles Black and Weeds on tenor for three tracks. After graduating from Berklee College of Music in 2016, South Korea born John Lee established himself as a prominent multi-instrumentalist (piano, organ, drums, guitar) in Vancouver but he knew that he wanted to stick with one instrument for his debut. Frequent collaborator and mentor Weeds suggested bass. The album was delayed for a over a year due to COVID-19, but these four musicians gathered in October 2021 to lay down these tracks, two of which are Lee originals, the others from Mulgrew Miller, Joshua Redman, and Benny Green as well as two standards.
They kick off as a quartet for the Miller composition “Soul Leo,” with Weeds the first one up expressively riding the smooth groove followed by a spirited Black delivering his bluesy lines and then the leader in swinging pizzicato as he closes it out. The trio than takes the Benny Green tune “Carl’s Blues,” written (yes, you guessed it) for the drummer. It features inspired conversation between all three trio members with Black again improvising in the vein of Oscar Peterson. The trio continues with a distinctively bluesy, minimal approach to the chestnut, “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” first swinging in dialogue between Black and Lee, before the bassist takes his walking solo with Allen’s light snare work giving a little impetus before fading out placidly.
Lee’s ballad, “Life Is a Beautiful Thing” segues nicely, with the bassist stating the melody along with Black, in bluesy but shimmering late-night balladry mode. Sandwiched in between his other original, the title track, is his arrangement of Harry Warren’s film piece, “September in the Rain,” a swinger that epitomizes the bassist’s feel for this kind of mid-tempo swing as he converses animatedly with his trio mates. The title track is dedicated to Lee’s father and is another swinging trio gem, a bit more up-tempo than its predecessor, with all three trio members swinging hard in both unison and in their respective solos, an especially potent and agile one from the leader.
Weeds joins the trio again in deeply soulful form for the gorgeous ballad, “Fabienne” from the late Swiss alto saxophonist George Robert. As a quartet they close in up tempo form on Joshua Redman’s “Blues on Sunday,” with Weeds blowing flowing lines to Black’s comping and the locked in groove from Lee and Allen, leading to a conversation between the pianist and bassist, before the latter steps out, showing that he too, has this “blues thing” down. Weeds states the theme again, prompting a series of Allen rolls on the eights, as they take it out.
The Artist, while not necessarily breaking any new ground (this is as mainstream as mainstream gets), does announce the arrival of a formidable musician, John Lee, who demonstrates an acute understanding of the jazz vocabulary and a naturally relaxed, confident and swinging style that in no way reflects any intimidation amongst the stellar veteran musicians he gathered for this session.