Bassist and vocalist John Lester has had one foot in rock and the other solidly set in jazz since he started playing bass. At age 14, John was asked by two fellow students to join them in a garage rock band. They had cleverly figured out that if John joined the school jazz ensemble as the bassist, he could use their electric bass and amp, and thus be in the rock band as well. So, not yet knowing how to play bass, John jumped in with both feet. One would take a path leading forward through rock, progressive rock, funk, and R&B, eventually writing and singing his own material, releasing three independent albums, and touring around the world with his unique solo bass/vocal show. The other would move back in time discovering the great jazz improvisers, mastering the upright bass, and becoming an in-demand jazz sideman.
These two distinct paths now converge with the release of John’s fourth album “John Lester Quartet ~ Jazz?”. The album is a collection of influential rock material performed as improvisational jazz. Recorded in London with John on vocals and upright bass, the project includes Steve Lodder on piano (Carla Bley, Ernistine Anderson, Paul McCartney), Theo Travis on tenor sax and flute (Robert Fripp, David Sylvian, Steven Wilson), and Davide Giovannini on drums (Roy Hargrove, John Scofield, Steve Winwood, and Bjork). As evidenced from their breadth of experience, all players are well versed in both the jazz and rock genres.
“Jazz?” redefines songs such as Mr. Jones (Counting Crows), Money (Pink Floyd), and Typical Situation (Dave Matthews Band) , setting them into relaxed straight ahead grooves and opening up the tunes for the players. Lester stays true to the original vocal melodies with his smokey baritone and lays down steady walking bass lines reminiscent of his favorite jazz period, the late 1950’s. The band tackles Tori Amos’ “God” as a quadruple time up tempo swing. “Evenflow” by Pearl Jam, is driven by a ferocious jazz-funk groove by Giovannini on drums. The once rocking “A Letter to Elise” by The Cure, is slowed to a soft ballad, creating room for the sensitive Robert Smith lyric.
A native of California, John graduated from California Polytechnic University San Luis Obispo with degrees in music and business. After graduating, John moved north to San Francisco where his skills as a big band bassist landed him gigs with Concord Jazz artists Full, Faith, and Credit, as well as the SF Jazz Composers Orchestra featuring Matt Brubeck. He played as a sideman in various small jazz groups in the Bay Area and formed his own group, Basso Trio, with tenor sax player Bob Johnson and drummer Steve Rossi.
His original songwriting has garnered two Song of the Year awards from West Coast Songwriters for his feminist anthem “The Ways of a Woman” (1999) and his introspect look at the life of an artist, “Both a Blessing and a Curse” (2001).
After releasing his first CD, Live at the Freight and Salvage, in 2001, John embraced the opportunity to move to Paris. John played throughout Northern Europe where his solo bass singer-songwriter show was a favorite at both festivals and acoustic clubs. He completed his second CD, “Big Dreams and the Bottom Line”, after a move to London in 2003. John became a regular at acoustic clubs such as The Troubadour and the 12 Bar as well as starting a jazz quartet with regular gigs at The 606 Club. John was a featured artist at European Bass Day in Viersen Germany in 2004 and UK Bass Day in 2005.
John’s time in Europe continued, with a move to Amsterdam. He continued to build a touring circuit for his solo show in The Netherlands, France, Germany, Switzerland, and the UK. John’s travels inspired the songwriting showcased on his 2006 release “So Many Reasons”. Two songs from that album garnered songwriting awards from the West Coast Songwriters, this time in their International Songwriting Contest, including Best Jazz Song honors for the title cut, “So Many Reasons”. The CD was released in the US in 2007 and for the next two years John continued to tour in support of the album in both Europe and the US.
In 2010, John turned his main focus back to jazz and the development of his quartet. Having already been a regular at The 606 Club in London for a few years, John started experimenting with rock cover songs in a jazz setting with his London musicians, Steve Lodder, Theo Travis, and Davide Giovannini. They had the right combination of qualities to interpret songs by the likes of Seal, Pink Floyd, Counting Crows, and The Cure as improvisational jazz pieces, staying true to both the original song and the jazz idiom. After a tour of the UK, the quartet moved from the stage to the studio and the album “Jazz?” was recorded at Eastcote Studios in London.
In early 2011, shortly after the sessions, John returned to the United States after a decade in Europe and relocated to New York City. He started working in both jazz and rock clubs. He played solo shows at venues such as Rockwood, The Living Room, Vivaldi Caffe, and the Bitter End while also sitting in at jazz sessions at Zinc Bar and Smalls and working his way into the NYC jazz scene.
In early 2012, once settled into New York, John returned to the “Jazz?” album project. The album was mixed by Brian Montgomery at Spin Studios and mastered by Randy Merrill at Masterdisk. “Jazz?” was released on October 2, 2012 on the Ambit Jazz label and has been very well received by US jazz radio stations. After six weeks on the charts “Jazz?” broke into the Top 100 JazzWeek albums in mid-November. It was one of a handful of vocal jazz albums on the charts in the company of releases by Kurt Elling and Diana Krall. John played an album launch party at Flute Gramercy and followed with more New York dates at Zinc Bar and Somethin’ Jazz.
As 2013 begins, “Jazz?” enters it’s 18th week on the jazz charts. John is continuing to support the album with shows in New York and is further developing his NYC quartet. Upcoming gigs will feature veteran pianist Michael Wolff (Cal Tjader, Cannonball Adderly) as well as saxophonists Joel Frahm and John Ellis. John is currently booking US and European dates throughout 2013.