Nanaimo-grown multi-instrumentalist John Lee shares the story behind The Artist

While the jazz musician has mastered the drums, bass, guitar, piano and Hammond B3 organ, he picks up the bass for his debut album.
John Lee sits at a piano gazing above it wearing a collared shirt and blue jeans.
“I keep practicing music as a whole in my mind. And when I get to those instruments, I only can really just execute the things that I’ve been thinking about,” says acclaimed jazz musician John Lee. Photo by Vincent Lim

Though award-winning multi-instrumentalist John Lee has mastered the drums, bass, guitar, piano, and Hammond B3 organ, he does not have a favourite instrument.

But Lee’s close friend, mentor and album producer Cory Weeds urged him to choose the double bass to showcase his debut 2022 release.

The recording project, The Artist, is a tribute to John’s father Jae Lee — who passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2014. “I basically just wrote it about him; about just the preciousness of the time that we did have with him being here. He passed when I was only 20 years old.”

Jae Lee was a commercial artist and watercolour painter. “My heart in music is so inspired by what he used to do,” says Lee.

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Growing up in Nanaimo in a family of Korean heritage, the classical piano was Lee’s first instrument at age five. “My brother (Sean), when I was eight years old was like, ‘Hey, you got to get an electric bass so that you can play it.’”

Today the Polaris Music Prize-suggested artist brings the same knowledge to all the instruments he plays. For him, jazz is about mastering music knowledge and then applying it to all his instruments.

He had aimed to record the album in 2020, however, COVID restrictions prevented some of the U.S. musicians — drummer Carl Allen, and pianist Eric Reed — from traveling to Vancouver. 

But Cellar Live label owner Cory Weeds’ inspired Lee to go forward with the project, helping to shape Lee’s concept and overall vision for the release. 

“He’s definitely been a mentor. And I look up to him,” says Lee. “He really helped me hone my artistry a little bit and gave me an opportunity to spread my wings and kind of guided me through that process.” 

The Artist was recorded in the fall of 2021 and shows the brilliance of Lee as always radiant, sounding as if he is smiling aloud on the acoustic bass. 

Creating a solidly fun swinging session with a powerhouse lineup, the band features Vancouver’s Miles Black on piano, New York drummer Carl Allen, and Lee’s close friend and saxophonist Cory Weeds.  

“You know, I guess I can say that if it was up to me, I would never record. Because I find the process of doing it — there’s something about it that’s so eternal,” says Lee.

Terell Stafford holds up his trumpet at The Vault in Nanaimo.
John Lee met Terell Stafford at age 18 at Wellington Secondary School and later went on to tour with him. Photo by Kerilie McDowall

Lee grew up in Westwood Lake, Nanaimo, where he had memorable musical adventures and was deeply inspired by local Nanaimo music talents like pianist Nico Rhodes and jazz drummer James McRae.

At high school, Lee enjoyed studying music with internationally renowned Nanaimo jazz instructor Carmella Luvisotto at Wellington Secondary School.

It was Luvisotto who introduced the young Lee to local musicians, and internationally established artists like trumpeter Terell Stafford, JUNO-winners Christine Jensen and Ingrid Jensen, and other well-known JUNO award-winning jazz artists like Vancouver trumpet player Brad Turner.

In 2011, Luvisotto, said to the then-18-year-old Lee, “Hey, you should come to the rehearsal, because if we can fit it in at the rehearsal, Terell [Stafford] may let you play a song with him tonight at the concert,” Lee recalls. “So I went to the rehearsal. I sat in and he said, ‘Yes, I guess.’ So I ended up sitting in with the band later at that concert.”

Full circle, now at age 29, Lee just finished up a short tour performing with Stafford and New York saxophone player Sam Taylor.

The musicians recently performed at Victoria’s Hermann’s Jazz Club, Vancouver’s Frankie’s Jazz Club and the Yukon Arts Centre

After his high school years, Lee studied at the Berklee College of Music where influential mentors included drummer Ralph Peterson, bassist and pianist Dave Santoro, trumpet player Darren Barrett, percussionist Neal Smith, saxophonist Greg Osby, and drummer and composer Terri Lyne Carrington

“I think jazz is literally more of an energy than it is a defined musical genre,” says Lee.

John Lee plays the bass at a Nanaimo venue on a dark stage.
“I’m still a drummer at heart really, even though now drums is probably the thing that I play the least,” says Lee. Photo by Kerilie McDowall

“My secret bucket list is probably to meet bassist Christian McBride and tell him how much I love him. And, you know, I would really love to work with pianist Benny Green one day… Definitely. I would love to play with bassist Ron Carter… what else can I say?” he says with a laugh.

Lee’s wisdom to younger folks vibes on excellence. 

“You know, life leads you in kind of new, kind of weird directions. But if you always are really true to what you’re passionate about, I feel like great things will happen, even if it’s not necessarily exactly what you thought that it might be,” he says.

“Get good, practice, and put everything into what you do without even necessarily knowing what might come out of it. If you do that, usually the results will be something really, really, beautiful.”

John Lee’s The Artist is on Vancouver’s Cellar Live while streaming on Spotify and Apple Music. 

Catch John Lee on Facebook and on Instagram @johnleemusician.

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