notes for My Backyard
Look in Mike Lee's physical backyard, and there's a family scene of parents and child and dog. Look in his cultural backyard, and there's a jazz rich hometown that delivered Tadd Dameron, Freddie Webster, Bull Moose Jackson, Henry Mancini, Benny Bailey, Albert Ayler and Joe Lovano, among others. Look yet again, fifteen years into the past, and there's a nervy youngster, freshly arrived in New York from Cleveland, showing up —saxophone in hand —to hear tenor titan Johnny Griffin at Sweet Basil.
"I don't know what got into me," Mike confesses. "I was unusually aggressive. I went and asked him if I could sit in with him, and he said, 'No, I don't normally have people do that...'"
Nevertheless, he was invited up later that night by Griffin, who called Dameron's "Good Bait" —a tune that, fortunately, Mike had just recently learned. "So we played that, and he leaned over and said 'Man, I love your approach,'" recalls Mike. "I said 'Thank you very much.'"
"I'm getting off the stage," continues Mike, "and he says 'Oh no, don't go anywhere.' All of sudden, his foot goes 1-2-3-4, and we were playing 'Cherokee' about the speed of light. We did the whole thing! Oh, man! He played two choruses, I played two choruses, he played one chorus, I played one chorus, then half a chorus, then sixteen, then eight, then four, then two, then ones, we played together..." What a thrill, since it was a Cleveland State concert by Griffin several years earlier that had inspired Mike to become a professional musician.
He started playing guitar in sixth grade, but switched to saxophone when he found out there was no guitar in the junior high concert band. A friend, Evan Marx (who went on to become the guitarist in Fattburger and now records for Verve), turned him on to Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. That augmented his auditory diet that, until that time, had included Maynard Ferguson, Carmen McRae and Ella Fitzgerald. "I listened to them over and over," adds Mike. "To this day, I can sing every last lyric off them."
Mike went on to study music at Cleveland State and the College Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, before moving to New York where he studied with then burgeoning tenor star and Cleveland jazz hero Joe Lovano. Like Lovano, he went on the road with the Woody Herman Orchestra in the early '90s, eventually returning to the New York City area where he appears with the Village Vanguard Orchestra, the Maria Schneider Orchestra and the Bill Mobley Big Band.
Mike also works with his own bands and guests with small groups which include New York musicians such as guitarists John Hart and Ron Affif, trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Ron McClure and drummer Elliot Zigmund. He is also a distinguished composer. Two of Mike's compositions were selected among the top five in the 1997 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and BMI International Jazz Composers competitions.
Central to Mike's active schedule is working as a clinician, educator and guest artist for university jazz programs. He has taught at over 40 schools in the past few years and comes highly recommended for teaching not only the art, but also the business of being a professional musician.
The angularly driving "Just North of Normal" pinpoints the location of Mike's real backyard behind his home in a Northern New Jersey town and jazz musician enclave, Montclair —literally just north of Normal Avenue. He intended the title as a double entendre because, as Mike explains, "the tune is anything but normal —it's incredibly hard to play."
A fixture in that backyard is Mike's wife and freelance classical violinist Rebecca Harris-Lee, who joins the ensemble on the medium-tempo, romantic ballad "Her Hair, Full of Heavenly Glamour." The title is taken from a line of F Scott Fitzgerald. "My wife and I were visiting my parents, and she was trying to find a magazine that had the right haircut for her. She found this quote, and said 'rather than a photo, I want this quote to describe what I want,'" recounts Mike, adding with a chuckle, "She did get a very nice haircut."
Mike describes "Sidewalk Seven" as "part of the theme of the album —the back yard and the childhood, the connection between the family life I'm creating now and the family life I experienced as a child. There's something about sidewalks that you're very much in touch with as a child. Playing hopscotch —this tune has a feel like playing hopscotch." While touring in Seattle, a heartstrings-pulling cell phone message from his young son Julian, literally a "Message from Home," prompted that tune. "Having a five-year old leave that kind of a message, there's only one thing you can play after that, and that's straight, down-home blues," concludes Mike.
Tending to his spirituality helps Mike balance his busy load. Spirituality was the muse behind the album's two other originals. "['Crooked Halo'] kind of means, yes, we're trying to lead a spiritual life and, yes, we have high spiritual aspirations, but we like to do it with a little bit of style. You know, you put that halo on a little bit crooked, and there's a little bit of sassiness." And the alternating happy and sad two-measure motifs of "Secular Living" reflect the daily challenge of living spiritually in a secular world.
As husband, father and spiritual practitioner, as creative performer, composer and educator, and as keeper of the jazz flame, Mike Lee has extended his home turf to cover a lot of territory. This figurative backyard is a big and welcoming one, and now it welcomes you. Enjoy it ... and, considering its size, just be glad you're not the one cutting the grass.
[Read complete interview with Mike Lee.]