Released earlier this month on the Jammin’colourS label, bassist Reggie Washington has delivered one of the finest jazz albums of 2015 with Rainbow Shadow, an album in tribute to the late guitarist Jef Lee Johnson. Johnson, an accomplished musician in his own right, collaborated with the best and biggest in soul and jazz playing with artists such as George Duke, Al Jarreau, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, and even Aretha Franklin. Johnson also released twelve albums under his own name, and it is these songs that Reggie Washington has re-imagined on Rainbow Shadow.
Washington is an equally accomplished musician, celebrated for his solo work as well as being one of the key players in the jazz scene during the ‘80s and ‘90s, performing with the likes of Branford Marsalis, Cassandra Wilson, and Chico Hamilton. Washington, the brother of the drummer Kenny Washington, kindly took the time out to answer some of our questions about his new album and career:
“I tried a lot of instruments before I got to bass at age 12. I played congas & bongos in a percussion duo with my brother Kenny on drummer came first. But Cello was MY instrument! I could REALLY play amazingly well for my age! The switch [to bass guitar]? A music teacher Anthony Diaz recommended to the conductor at the NYC City-Wide Orchestra that he switch me to bass from the cello section. I found this secret out 30 years ago. They said it was temporary !”
It was the influence of his older brother and his friend the great bassist Marcus Miller that helped shape his musical upbringing, when Miller used to visit Washington’s house to spend time with his brother and their father’s record collection. Being on the New York City music scene the two bassists were brought up on the same musical diet:
“I watched/listened to Marcus develop his sound. I heard and loved what he was hearing! I found my own sound, I take pride in any musical contribution and I strive to stay consistent! These things I learned from Marcus Miller. These things I keep for life; include my deepest respect for him.”
Another influence was the late Brothers Johnson bassist Louis Johnson, who sadly passed a few weeks back:
“I saw the Brothers Johnson in Miami 1980 on a Triple-Bill with Narada Michael Walden Group with Sheila E., and the headliner Rufus featuring Chaka Khan! I witnessed Louis do “Stomp” UP CLOSE! I thought his bass solo was an overdub! Nope. It wasn’t. I watched him slam it. A MAJOR influence to all of us!”
In 1986 Washington met Jef Lee Johnson in New York City for the first time, and immediately had an impact upon him: “This guy is a BEAST, I said to myself! I’m witnessing something/someone and I want to play with him!”. Johnson and Washington collaborated on record and on tour in the years leading up to Johnson’s death in 2013, and Washington decided that the world needed to know the music of Johnson: “My wide/manager Stefany and I felt he was truly one of those unrecognised geniuses! He’s probably played on one of your favourite tunes! Folks need to know what they missed.”
Reggie Washington’s admiration is clearly evident on Rainbow Shadow; the album has been put together with the utmost care and love from all those involved, making it one of the most enjoyable tribute albums in recent years. This is partially because these songs haven’t been heard by that many people before – admittedly, before we were sent the new album, we had not known of Jef Lee Johnson nor his music. Rainbow Shadow provides a fascinating insight into Johnson’s solo career. Washington handles the bass, whilst Marvin Sewell and Patrick Dorcean handle the guitars and drums respectively. What makes the album more special is the clever use of samples by both Washington and DJ Grazzhoppa, who also features on turntables:
“I’ve always wanted to work with a “Turntablist” since my days with Branford Marsalis and Buckshot LeFonque (w/DJ Apollo Novicio). With Grazz, he’s a contributing member of the group. Not a “sideshow” or “filler act” between the music like I’ve seen in other groups utilizing a DJ. In this project Grazz has the sounds of Rainbow Crow. He’ll use Jef’s guitars and vocals with a couple of crows here and there to create the “Shadow” of the Rainbow.”
The album begins on ‘Crow’s Rainbow’ a bass solo by Washington which touches upon the Lenape Native-American legend of the Rainbow Crow. This legend has it that the Rainbow Crow – a bird of beauty – takes on responsibility to stop a snowfall by flying to warn his friends, and flies to the “Great Spirit in the Sky” who gives him a stick of fire to carry in his beak to warm the earth. The Crow warms the earth and melts the snow, but carrying the fire in his beak burns his feathers and the smoke leaves his voice ravaged. Yet the Crow is rewarded by the Spirit for his bravery and courage with freedom from being hunted or captured; and his black feathers shine and reflect the colours of the Earth. Jef Lee Johnson embraces this fascinating legend, and for Washington:
“I can see it. Giving himself for the benefit of his people. Even if it costs you your “voice” or “beautifully coloured feathers”! He gave to the music industry until he couldn’t give anymore. He wasn’t getting anything back so he gave up.”
Highlights on the album include the brilliant ‘Cake’, ‘Black Sands’, and ‘Take the Coltrane’ – all brilliant covers, giving Johnson’s work a new breath of life. Washington does not claim that he’s “updated” Johnson’s style of music, instead, in his words, “they’re just a little different. Jef’s tunes make me feel a certain way. Some tunes tell me to leave them alone. They’re good as they were recorded. Other ones gave me a feeling and I just ran with it.”
The album ends on a poignant note, the beautiful ‘For You Jef’, featuring a spoken word tribute to the man and the legend of the Rainbow Crow from TIBOO. It is a perfect ending to a brilliant tribute album to Jef Lee Johnson: Washington’s bass playing and production is superb, his use of samples of Johnson’s guitar is inspired, and the love and admiration that Washington had for Johnson is clearly evident.
Washington hopes that with this new album the music of Jef Lee Johnson will reach a wider audience. Indeed, he hopes that this will be the first of a line of tributes to the late guitarist. As for Reggie Washington’s future, he seems comfortable and confident in his career: “I play for the good of MUSIC! I’m at a place in my career where my love for the music and to keep it alive is the mission.”
For more information on Reggie Washington, please visit his website here where you can find details about how to purchase a copy of Rainbow Shadow.
Reggie will also be performing in London 13th September at the Bussey Building, more information can be found here.