Musical Craftsmanship with Jared Lees
Alex Hall, 02-07-2019

Jared Lees performing with JT's Electrik Blackout at Jilly's Music Room in Akron on Dec. 20th.
Stephen Mule
In January, Cuyahoga Falls lost one of its most multi-talented artists to Tallmadge as bass guitarist and knife maker Jared Lees moved his family there after 23 years. During his time in the Falls, Lees has elevated his name significantly as a bassist, having released 12 recordings in that span of time as collaborator and solo artist, often to critical acclaim. More recently, however, his penchant for woodworking and craftsmanship have given way to a niche knife-making business that is itself a reflection of the artistry of his impressive talent.

Lees’ output as a musician really begins with the album Eagerly Procrastinating, which showcases a developing artist’s approach to a relatively new instrument in a somewhat lo-fi package. Since the electric bass guitar was developed after 1950, there are not many influential players who are household names. Eagerly Procrastinating seems to owe a debt to at least two, however, namely Victor Wooten and Jaco Pastorius. One song is even titled “What Would Jaco Do?” leaving little question that the Pastorius legend is imbued in Lees’ approach to the instrument, but perhaps also his tonality and composition. Nevertheless, a song like “Simply Put” owes at least something to players like Larry Graham and Bootsy Collins, given its quick and dirty funk routine, and “Death of a Dragonfly” changes things up a bit via a volume-swelled melody and soloing over a delayed bass loop, revealing influence from Cinematic Orchestra, Little Dragon, As Tall As Lions, and even Sade. Other tracks on the album—nearly all of which are solo bass or built around multiple bass parts—utilize tricks like tapping to showcase what comes across as virtuosic skill.

Later albums weave in and out of Lees’ solo bass and full band productions. On Through and Within, for instance, drums and guitars work together to produce a trance-inducing sound from the get-go, all adding up to a mood apparently influenced by a spiritual-philosophical theory. Saxophone also makes an appearance courtesy of Justin Tibbs, a frequent collaborator with Lees in the Jared Lees Trio, Jared Lees Band, Chromadrive, and the Jared Lees Mini Orchestra. Sonic Sketchbook, meanwhile, brings an uplifting tone beginning with the opening track, “Child’s Play,” pulling the listener in further than earlier albums while relinquishing the pseudo-acid jazz vibe of Through and Within. Vocals are also incorporated courtesy of Emily C, a Lees collaborator in the band Branches of the Same Tree and the Jared Lees Mini Orchestra, but the standout track is the atmospheric “Dispatch Master,” which wouldn’t be out of place in a David Lynch film. The subsequently released As the Fractal Curve is Re-Drawn challenged Lees to release a newly completed song per week over eight weeks, and each track’s title is derived from Jurassic Park. The result sounds like far more of a sonic sketchbook than the ironically more complete-sounding Sonic Sketchbook, with Lees seeming to experiment with a variety of effects pedals for textures and mood, and the songs lack the depth one may hope for as a follow-up. The same seems at least partially true of the Jared Lees Trio recording, After Thought, which features Drew PenCook on Drums beside Lees and Tibbs. While the music is more firmly in the neighborhood of Lees’ previous work, it is almost as though the band format impedes his ability to progress his musical vision.

On 2015’s before.after., Lees offers four songs with a total runtime of around twelve minutes. Here again, the music fits within the Lees catalog, but the depths aren’t as profound as Sonic Sketchbook, even as Lees himself plays drums and acoustic guitar behind the featured bass. The description of the EP as “experimental, spatial, ambient” is apt, but it lacks the lush production and dramatic mood one would expect. With 2016’s Landscapes, however, he delivers on this level and others. Once again Lees performs entirely on his own—on bass, guitars, drums, keyboards, and strings—as the album sonically paints the titular landscapes. “Sunset” is of particular note on this release, its arpeggiated solo bass riffs calling to mind the calm of a sunset just before ominous night falls, as depicted by a wall of strings that will stir the listener and likely catch Lees’ fans off guard.

Two live releases from the Jared Lees Band came out a year apart in 2016 and 2017 with the major addition of guitarist Tim Mirth to what had previously been the Jared Lees Trio. These recordings gave way to an eponymous collective modern jazz recording from the quartet: Chromadrive. Two tracks written by the band as a whole, including the impressive opener “Candy” and the wild, noisy closer “Let’s See” are joined by familiar Lees songs “The Journey” and “Disjointed Cohesion,” plus solo pieces from Lees and Mirth. At times, Chromadrive is like a later Ornette Coleman album, but the production manages to be palatable in spite of both considerable complexity and loose structure, featuring vamps over which squealing guitars and honking sax riffs cut loose. Most recently, Lees formed what he calls a Mini Orchestra, complete with vocals from Emily C, Tibbs’ sax, and Mirth’s guitar, besides drums, keyboards, and a string trio. A four-song live recording released in August of 2018 features three Lees compositions and a track from Emily C, originally recorded as part of the lone Branches of the Same Tree album.

Given Lees’ prolific musical output, it’s impressive that he is also a gifted artisan—and currently a very busy one. Having studied with Victor Wooten and other world class musicians at the Center for Music and Nature at Wooten Woods besides attending the annual trade show of the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) in support of Prat Basses and others, Lees found himself in contact with many bass builders who end up with a lot of scrap wood. Many of these builders now supply him with their scraps—many of which are exotic woods—which he uses to make custom knives.

“I got started thinking it would just be a hobby,” he said. “I made the mistake of posting a photo of the first one I made on social media, and basically accidentally found myself in business because I haven't been able to stop since.”

The knives are part and parcel of his life as a bassist, which was cemented when he was 12 years old and picked up his father’s bass. Later, he studied music at the University of Akron, but changed majors after realizing he was already at a level where he could progress on the instrument on his own. He worked briefly for bass luthier Oscar Prat, as he put it, “mostly just sanding, small set up tweaks, and a few demo videos,” but his love of custom basses has influenced his approach to his knife designs. He mentioned, by way of example, that “the wood combos are often influenced by custom basses.” In terms of the style of knives, he said “most of my knife designs these days are based off of a combo of traditional Japanese and western chef knives.” The ornate, figured wood handles, paired with Damascus steel blades, among other materials, characterize the JLees Knives brand, which has been in such demand that he can only take so many orders.

Jared Lees’ considerable talent as both a craftsman and musician has made him an artistic asset of Cuyahoga Falls, and though he has now bid the city farewell, his work will always be a part of the Falls community—artistic and otherwise.

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