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Will Lee


Will Lee centers in on a long, vibrant career

Most gifted musicians have, at one point in time, grappled with career decisions. With so many options, battling ambitions, and outside pressure, some pursue their love of music professionally, but others opt for more stable ways of making a living.

Will Lee of Local 802 (New York City) has never encountered this dilemma. He has never even considered for a second whether he should have been a doctor or an engineer. He simply knows he was born to play bass.

If Lee was ever going to question his life path, it would have been at his first audition in New York City.

“As I walked down the hall where the band was going to be auditioning me, there were these instrument cases that said Santana, Johnny Winter, Miles Davis, and it was the first time that I got a little intimidated,” says Lee. “I was saying to myself, ‘Man, what am I doing here? I’m out of my league.’ But as soon as Billy Cobham counted off the first song, I was floating. I knew it was right.”

On that day, Lee made the transformation from the big fish of Miami musicians to the bassist for the highly influential fusion band, Dreams, led by the late Michael Brecker and brother Randy of Local 802.

“I do believe in karma, and I do believe I’ve been lucky so many times, over and over again. When I was working in Miami, Dreams was the band that I thought was the perfect blend of rock and jazz. So, when I got to be in that particular band–talk about lucky,” he says, with a hint of awe and disbelief.

Since landing that gig, Lee has grown a monster of a career that keeps getting bigger and scarier. His discography is filled with names like Aretha Franklin, Barry Manilow, Art Farmer, and George Benson, running the gamut from jazz to pop to rock. And you can’t talk about Will Lee without mentioning his 29-year record-holding tenure as The Late Show bassist for CBS.

Whether he’s playing his regular Monday night gig with funk/fusion guitarist Oz Noy of Local 802 at the Bitter End, performing on The Late Show bandstand, or recreating the impossible-to-recreate tunes by The Beatles in the Fab Faux, one thing remains constant: he’s as content as a 12-year-old jamming in the basement with his best friends. “You have to love your gig,” he says.

Stage Lights and Condenser Mikes

He’s got it all: killer chops, huge ears, an abyssal groove, and stage presence that could charm a cobra. But life on the bandstand is only the half of it. Lee is somewhat of a rarity in that he excels in both the studio and on the stage.

“I really had to do both; one didn’t cut it without the other,” he says. “In the studio, you have the ability to hone in on your sound, get your reading together, and hear everyone else properly. On stage, it’s like a wild animal. You’re relying on the vibe of the moment.”

His slick bass work can be heard on heaping handfuls of Gold and Platinum records. It’s pointless to even give an example. Name it, and he’s probably played on it.

A One Stop Groove Shop

It’s not often that you encounter a musician who can simultaneously exist in the upper echelons of pop and jazz. At the root of this phenomenon is Lee’s respect for different styles of music, leading to total absorption and versatility.

“When reggae hit the scene, it threw me for a loop, because I was a studio musician, and I thought that I could play anything,” Lee says. “But when reggae came along, I had to drop everything and learn this style. It was like a foreign language, and I wanted to dig inside it and be able to create it from a point of originality.”

Reggae, or course, is just one of the guns in Lee’s arsenal. He plays funk like he just stepped off the Mothership, and you can almost hear Paul Chambers and his forceful, yet fluid, walking lines when Lee drives a jazz standard. And let’s not forget the Jaco Pastorius influence. Lee plays a mean fretless.

Once you learn the rules, you can break them. And the ultimate rule in improvisation still holds true. “When you talk to a guy like George Clinton, he says that once you’re in the funk world, everything works,” Lee muses. “It’s very freeing to get that message, that anything works.”

Well, almost anything. Total immersion in a particular style gives necessary creative limits in which you can focus your energies. You also have to be a Zen master, in the sense of detaching yourself from your own musical agenda, and instead, noticing how you’re contributing to the overall sound of the group.

“I have a tendency to let my ears dictate the whole thing,” says Lee. “That’s what playing music is all about for me–being able to put on the producers hat and listen to the overall thing. If you start getting carried away, mentally rise above and see if what you’re doing is appropriate.”

Business in the Bag

While Lee will swear up and down that he knows nothing about business (properly worn ties and briefcases scare him), his discography and tidal wave momentum tell a very different story.

Lee’s admission into the AFM in 1972 reveals a young, career-minded musician, who joined as soon as he could afford it. “Anybody who thinks like me wants to belong to a place where there’s some stability,” says Lee. “I’m a guy out there working, and I’m not the kind of person who is automatically so money smart that I’ll invest the right amount for my retirement. When the whole gigging scene comes to an end, there’s something in place where, when I do retire, I can collect a pension.”

Lee also has an uncanny ability of staying ahead of massive industry shifts. A lot of this stability is due to his profile as one of the baddest bassists in town, but equally important is his ability to hang ten in the crest of a tsunami. “I think the idea is to ride the wave, and never compare it to anything it’s been before,” says Lee. “It’s not going to be the same as it was, ever.”

Top Gear

There’s no doubt that Lee has had his fair share of influence on the industry, but his reach extends beyond the notes. He has the ears of the best builders in the country who look to him for direction and improvements to bass guitar technology. The result: serious, top-end instruments in the hands of many industry pros.

So far, Lee has had the most success with master luthier Roger Sadowsky, a Brooklyn-based boutique builder known for his top-quality guitars and basses. “I feel a little bit of pride that I was there at the very beginning,” says Lee. “Roger has such a great ability to listen to what people need.” Lee’s signature basses come standard with the Hipshot Bass Xtender (see page 25 for details), which gives him those five-string basement tones on his preferred four-string instrument.

What’s Next?

At this point, one could think it would be easy for Lee to go to his steady gig at The Late Show until he can sit back and collect his hard-earned pension from the AFM. Fortunately, his restless personality won’t allow him to do that; he’d rot on the bandstand! Paul Shaffer of Local 802, the director of the CBS Orchestra, knows this, probably because he’s a great musician himself.

“Paul has always respected me in getting other stuff when I needed another gig,” says Lee. “That’s what juices me, what gives me what I need to bring the party, that real honest shit from a real music audience. He knows I bring it back into the band.”

You can find Lee squeezing juice at his Monday night gig with the high-tech, chromatic guitarist Oz Noy. They’re even taking the show on the road to Noy’s native Israel for a quick international jog.

Then, of course, there’s The Fab Faux. At the mere mention of The Beatles, Lee pulls out his rug, faces England, and sings “Tomorrow Never Knows.” “The Beatles have been kicking everyone’s ass for a really long time,” says Lee with obvious reverence. “My main influence is The Beatles,” he definitively adds.

The Fab Faux is not just another Beatles tribute. Have you ever heard your local Beatles band perform “I am the Walrus,” or John Lennon’s “I Don’t Wanna Face It,” sounding anything like the recordings? Highly unlikely.

“This is our 13th year doing it,” says Lee. “We try to honor the songs exactly as they are on the records.” Psychedelia and all. Just don’t expect to see any bowl cuts.

In 2000, Lee joined drummer Chris Parker, percussionist and Grammy-winning songwriter Ralph MacDonald, keyboard player  Clifford Carter, and saxophonist David Mann, all of Local 802, to form Toph-E & the Pussycats, a rhythm and blues band with an experimental jazz approach.

In the back of his mind, Lee is getting ready for his next record. So far, he has two to his name: Oh!, released in 1993, and Birdland, a tribute to Charlie Parker that he made with his father, Bill, in 2002.

But even seasoned pros have their challenges. “I have everything in mind, mostly self doubt,” he says of composing his own songs. “I’m always trying to make it through to get onto the next [song] section and see where it takes me, where the next logical, or illogical, section is.”

If Lee applies even a fraction of the determination to his song writing that he put into his bass, be sure that there will be some knockout tunes on his next record. In the meantime, his undying passion as a session player and performer will keep us all on our toes.

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