John Lester –
Live at the Freight and Salvage Coffee House; Big Dreams and the Bottom Line; So Many Reasons
My introduction to northern Californian John Lester came with his contribution The Ways of a Woman to the European BassDay 2004 compilation CD. Bassplayer/ singer Lester is an award-winning songwriter, and it would appear that he takes all three of these facets of his musicianship equally seriously This is what makes him unique among the handful of artists that include John Wetton, Sting and Jay Leonhart. He has the vocal abilities and songwriting talents of Wetton and Sting, as well as the unique bass voice of someone like Leonhart. Lester is an unflashy but oh-so-tasteful player, with impeccable intonation, equally adept on upright, acoustic and electric (fretted and fretless) basses, and with a voice that is essentially his own, albeit occasionally reminiscent of Stephen Stills.
‘Live at the Freight and Salvage Coffee House’ dates back to 2001 and is an intimate, immediately welcoming affair on the occasion of the bassist’s birthday. It kicks off with The Heart of Our Family, a solo double bass tribute to his parents. Rose Colored Glasses is a blues that also features the first bass solo here (again on upright): great voice, great playing. The Ways of a Woman is a fretless feature – a hauntingly beautiful ballad with intelligent lyrics that Lester’s voice more than does justice to. I Like Brunettes is a droll, bluesy double bass celebration of the un-fair sex that includes some engaging scatting. All Blues is the only cover here: it features Bob Johnson on what sounds like alto sax and is a real treat, especially if one has never heard it sung. Lester contributes a second convincing solo, again on the upright. I Saw You is a further bass-sax duet, before Lester picks up the fretted bass for a solo feature, Both a Blessing and a Curse. Not only is his singing moving, his bass solo is the epitome of taste. Your Tattoo is another fretted bass and vocal feature, this time in terms of subtle slap-‘n-popping, and introduces percussionist Paulo Baldi. It is catchy piece that indicates great synergy between the two players, something that also pervades the next piece, now with the introduction of electric bassist Kenon Chen, a sparse, minor-key reggae tune: Reach Out is unflashy but all the more likeable for that very reason. Two leaves the creation / evolution debate unresolved, but at least it takes a firm stand against the creationist twaddle that Adam came first, the kind of androcentric bullshit that spawned millennia of sexist practice. Nyree is on piano here, and Lester turns in a compelling solo on fretted bass. On My Own introduces percussionist Celso Alberti and features Lester on strummed fretted bass. They Come and They Go is an appropriate closer to the set. A solo feature that occupies similar thematic terrain as Suzanne Vega’ Tom’s Diner and Tom Waits’s The Heart of Saturday Night, it constitutes a meditation on the ephemeral.
Recorded in 2003, ‘Big Dreams and the Bottom Line’ contains studio versions of several of the live set’s tunes, plus a few ‘new’ tracks. Like all of Lester’s songs, the former are fully composed / constructed, so the versions here do not differ substantially from the live versions. Most significantly, and to his credit, Lester steers clear of studio trickery, preferring to allow the songs and his playing ‘sing’ for themselves. The Ways of a Woman remains as gorgeous as ever, while On My Own now features fretless bass, the strumming tasks being assumed by acoustic guitars. The drum track, too, is more prominent here. I Saw You is played on acoustic bass guitar, a folksy piece that would not be out of place in the repertoire of Suzanne Vega, Kristin Hersh or Shawn Colvin. Two retains its Latin flavour, but is piano-free here, with Baldi and Alberti on percussion and drums respectively. Broken is the first of the ‘new’ tunes, with Lester on basses and nylon-string guitars, a melancholic, minor-key meditation on loss and longing. The Happy Man is an earthily funky, nonmelancholic number, with Lester on electric and acoustic basses. The Heart of Our Family is strongly similar to the live version, without any loss in haunting immediacy. Lester is on fretless again on Out of the Clear Blue Sky. It would take another review altogether to comment on the quality and intelligence of his lyrics: suffice it to say that Lester’s singing and songwriting are on a level that would put a lot of the currently lauded hotshots to shame and expose their lack of imagination and musicality, and the triteness of their efforts. Reach Out retains the reggae flavour of the live version, with Lester supplying all the bass parts and vocal harmonies here. Sister is a likeable nylon-string guitar and fretless piece, and Your Tattoo differs more substantially from the live version. The slap/ pop bass accompaniment now comes in later, with Lester opting for a melodic hook to carry the song on the instrumental front. The Garden is gentle, bossa-style album closer. Lester again employs ‘live’ percussion, instead of the flat, soulless programming a vast number of players resort to.
‘So Many Reasons’, the 2006 studio album, carries over two pieces form the live set. The title track, So Many Reasons, that kicks off the set has Lester on double bass, with percussion and unobtrusively arranged and performed backing vocals completing this attractive, Michael-Franks-reminiscent Latin number. Steppin’ Back in Time is a full-on, suitably blast-from-the-past swing number, replete with piano (Bas van Lier) and brass/ sax (Robbert Scherpenisse – trumpet, Lucian McGuiness – trombone, Theo Travis – tenor saxophone). Last Letter to Theo is a gently melancholic ‘thank-you’ addressed to Vincent’s brother, Theo van Gogh – the cover of the album, incidentally, is taken from the artist’s ‘The Sower’. It constitutes a reflection on a life of both artistic exuberance and profound suffering, with Travis providing tasteful commentary on flute. Beware La Merde (no need to translate this!) is a jazzy, upright-bass-driven caution to tread carefully on the soiled sidewalks of life, while Good Intentions is a gently syncopated, funky piece that is also a showcase for Baldi’s percussion skills. Both a Blessing and a Curse marks a departure from the live version. Lester employs the upright rather than the fretted bass, as well as a drum track, courtesy of Steve Rossi. She and I is a gently haunting song, with Lester on double bass and acoustic guitar and Travis on soprano sax, again not too remote from Michael Franks-charted territory. Fear Itself offers a hypnotic grove and vocal phrase, and deals with the all-pervasiveness of fear (itself). (As Dennis Hopper’s character said in the late ‘70s Wim Wenders film, quoting Roosevelt: ‘There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.’) ‘Union Street’ is driven by acoustic guitar and features a tasteful fretted bass solo. Rose Colored Glasses differs from the live version in including Bob Johnson on tenor sax, plus a sharp drums ‘n perc accompaniment. Rainbow over Magen’s Bay is an upbeat, reggae-flavoured ditty – perhaps my least favourite of all the tunes on these three albums. But this says a lot about the astonishingly consistent and high-level songwriting craft of the man, because it is still a very good song.
In conclusion, then, the albums reviewed here offer something for bass enthusiasts, something for lovers of pleasing, moving vocals – and especially something (lots of things) for lovers of good songs. If this were a just universe, John Lester would have had at least 5 songs in the top ten and a similarly high number of Grammy nominations.