Will Lee’s new album Love, Gratitude And Other Distractions, which comes out Aug. 20 on his Sinning Saint Records (it’s at iTunes on Aug. 10), shows the Beatles’ influence that is so much a part of the celebrated bass player’s being.
“There’s not a note I play that’s not Beatles-influenced,” says Lee, who besides his nightly gig in The Late Show With David Letterman‘s house band is a founder of the ultimate Beatles tribute band the Fab Faux, now celebrating its 15th anniversary.
“My dad gave me a set of drums for Christmas when I was six-years-old growing up in Huntsville, Texas, and I never played them until they showed us Ringo up close on Ed Sullivan on February 9, 1964,” relates Lee, who now works in The Ed Sullivan Theater, where the show originated, and is now the home of the Letterman show.
“I was 11 then, and The Beatles have been the undercurrent of everything I’ve done or played or written since. It all starts with The Beatles, and that’s no exaggeration. I don’t know what I’d be doing otherwise! I was thinking of being a dentist at the time: I couldn’t believe the anxiety and the pain–and was going to be the guy who put an end to that. And then The Beatles and music bit me!”
In fact, Lee’s home studio, where he recorded Love, Gratitude And Other Distractions, is called The Beatles Museum, “for obvious reasons,” he relates. “There’s Beatles s**t everywhere! Everything in it is Beatle-y.”
The album features numerous guests, including ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, who recorded Allen Toussaint’s much recorded New Orleans R&B chestnut “Get Out Of My Life Woman” one night at The Beatles Museum.
“I woke up that morning singing that song before I got out of bed—and couldn’t get it out of my head,” recalls Lee. “My engineer Glenn Ianaro was coming over that night to work on a different song, and then the phone rang and it was Gibbons. He said, ‘I’m in town, man,’ and I said, ‘Come on over tonight and sing!’”
Lee does a perfect low-growl imitation of Gibbons–with a cold.
“He said, ‘I got a terrible cold. Yeah, I want to get it recorded before it goes away.’ So he came over and we recorded the song and then mimed it for a video. And on camera he’s pointing at me and saying, ‘He’s so lucky. I got all the right overtones’—because of his cold!”
After the Gibbons session, Lee called Toussaint to see if he might come in and lay down the piano track.
“It was unbelievable! He’s such an amazing musician, he could have said, ‘Give me a studio grand piano’–and I was ready to research whatever keyboard he required. But he just said, ‘I don’t care.’ He’d probably have played a little kid’s piano if that’s all I had. But I spent many hours with my engineer designing a beautiful piano software sound, and he didn’t have a negative thing to say about it.”
As Lee is on his way this week to Japan, where he performs regularly and where Love, Gratitude And Other Distractions is already out and doing well (it topped the Tower Records jazz chart there upon release), he cites “1-2-3,” the 1965 Len Barry hit that he covered with Japanese pop-jazz keyboardist-vocalist Akiko Yano, whose trio he’ll perform with in Tokyo and Osaka.
“She’s such an aficionado of American music, it’s embarrassing!” says Lee, whose disc-closing instrumental version of Charlie Chaplain’s classic “Smile,” featuring just himself and guitarist Chuck Loeb, also has a Japan backstory.
“I was playing there with [late jazz fusion guitarist] Hiram Bullock, and he had an equipment breakdown,” says Lee. “So we had dead time—and a full house watching us. But Japan is different than the States: They’re so open-minded and ready for everything, and Hiram was so creative, so I started playing the notes to ‘Smile’—and suddenly figured out the rest of the tune out of the creative energy and pressure to get it done and not leave people hanging!”
For the album, Lee did it live in the studio with Loeb.
“He’s capable of doing it in the moment,” Lee says of Loeb. “All I had to do was play the melody on top of his soundscape, and he followed me. And when I started the project two-and-a-half years ago, I knew it would be the last song on the album: Steve Lukather just did the same thing with it on his album, but the two of us are just sentimental old fools, so it makes sense.”
Guitarist Lukather, incidentally, solos on Lee’s original composition “Natives.” Fellow guitar ace Pat Metheny takes an uncredited but much appreciated turn on lead track “Gratitude,” another Lee original that also features his Letterman bandmate Paul Shaffer and guitarist and n’goni (Malian banjo-guitar) player Leni Stern.
“Gratitude,” notes Lee, contains a paraphrase of “The Serenity Prayer.”
“I’m a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, with 28 years of sobriety,” he says. “’The Serenity Prayer’ fit the timing and phrasing of the melody, and the song is both personal and universal at the same time.”
Writing songs, notes Lee, is a struggle.
“I have a writer’s heart, I think, but the ‘muscle’ it requires has to get into gear. Years can go by where that muscle sleeps: Life calls, and whatever I think I have to do with my time—playing for other people’s sessions and doing the easier stuff that I do for a living–gets in the way. Writing is work, and you have to sweat out s**t and put it in a way that’s musical and sounds good.”
The album track “Miss Understanding,” which features Lee’s late friend Hugh McCracken on guitar, has special significance on two additional counts.
“It’s pretty autobiographical, from the drug era of my life when I allowed people in that I didn’t know how to get out!” he says. But the recording also has what may well be the last recorded performance by the late Chrissy Amphlett.
“She threw everything she had into that little part, and you can hear it and feel it,” says Lee. “We have her on film doing it and you can just see an intensity level that’s just unbelievable. I think it was her last recording, and I’m happy and not happy about that: mostly not happy, but I have to be thankful about her friendship and willingness and gift.”
Love, Gratitude And Other Distractions is Lee’s second album. His first, Oh!, came out 20 years ago and “should be called Ouch!,” he jokes, “though it had a great Jeff Beck solo.”
Lee also made an album with his father–a bebop piano player—of Charlie Parker compositions and appropriately entitled Birdhouse.
The new album’s striking water-themed artwork and package design, by the way, comes from his wife, the talented photographer Sandrine Lee.
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