I once read that the great acoustic bassist Ray Brown had appeared on more records than any other jazz sideman. If Will Lee doesn’t hold that distinction among electric bassists, than I’m at a loss as to who that might be.
Here’s just a small cross section of artists whose records he’s credited with lending his services: George Benson, Billy Joel, Carly Simon, Peter, Paul and Mary, Steely Dan, B.B. King, Rory Block, Leo Sayer, Donald Harrison, Scritti Politti, Barry Manilow, Bette Midler and Gary Burton. He’s been around a while too: with the Brecker Brothers and Billy Cobham, he formed the early fusion outfit Dreams at the turn of the 70s. His other endeavors include a steady gig in Paul Shaffer’s band on the David Letterman Show and as part of the ultimate Beatles tribute band, The Fab Faux.
Lee has also worked as a solo artist, but this is the most neglected side of his career because as of now, he’s officially got only one album solely to his name, Oh! and that one was twenty years ago. Now comes the long-awaited follow-up, Love, Gratitude and Other Distractions.
As Lee has appeared on the records of so many musical luminaries, you can bet your sweet ass he’s gotten many of them to return the favor, but the distinction with Lee is that he knows how to utilize them in such a way that they don’t disturb the overall vibe of the album. With the possible exception of his duet with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons for Allen Toussaint’s “Get Out of My Life Woman,” this doesn’t have that overdone “…and Friends” gimmick vibe to it (and “Get Out of My Life” is one of the best tracks on the album, anyway).
So what kind of music does this contemporary music chameleon make when he’s in charge, anyway? There’s a confluence of a lot of modern styles like blues, calypso, jazz, rock and RnB and he gives it all a crossover bent. As smooth, mature jazzy soul-pop for the 45-and-over set, this works quite well.
For those looking for Lee go all Stanley Clarke or Jaco Pastorius on us, well, that’s not really his style, but there are a handful of instrumentals where his bass sounds pretty: the chipper “Papounet’s Ride” has him leading the warm melodic lines with Bob James handling the solo chores on piano. A celestial rendition of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” done mainly by chiming his bass ends the album (the same song in the same heartfelt way that Steve Lukather concludes with his own 2013 release Transition). But the best of these vocal-less songs would have to be “Simple Way To Say I Love You,” where Lee makes his bass sing very melodically to a rich, soulful melody, with sublime support from drummer Peter Erskine and harmonica player Gary Schreiner.
Lee can do more than just play bass, he can sing, too. It’s a good thing, because he does so on the remaining seven selections. Like his bass playing, he can adapt his voice to a variety of moods, and that becomes clear right off on “Gratitude,” where he moves from a near-shout to a near-whisper with ease and handles vocal parts with odd rhythms and cadences without a hitch. That would be the highlight of the song if not for Pat Metheny’s unaccredited guitar synth solo. “Miss Understanding” is a country song that’s likeable enough to reel in non-country music fans, and Lee’s narrative of a troubled, needy lady is done with the right touch of wit.
“The Sinning Saint” is Lee’s Steely Dan excursion, bolstered by Chuck Loeb and Steve Gadd. He adds lyrics to Horace Silver’s “The Natives Are Restless”, and renames into simply “Natives,” setting it to a dance floor beckoning beat from Gadd and boasting the twin threat of guitarists Oz Noy and the Will Lee of guitarists, Mr. Lukather himself.
Will Lee’s second leap from the album credits list to the album’s front cover — employing the ol’ “wearing a suit in the pool” trick pioneered by Joe Walsh — is a successful venture. Is there any wonder now why everybody wants him around on their records?
Love, Gratitude and Other Distractions is poised for release August 20, on Sinning Saint, Ltd.