“I like to say that I’m as old as this universe and as new as this moment,” offers saxophonist Khari Allen Lee, a philosophical reply that sounds like one his “kindreds,” the late, great jazz musician Sun Ra, might give. “I’ve been around in this body for 36 years now.”
Lee’s complex answer to a simple question about age is not at all surprising. Lee approaches everything—life, music, art—with an understanding of the importance of its spiritual essence.
“There have been forces that have pushed music into the realm of commodity to be bought and sold,” says Lee, who recently released his third album as leader, Khari Allen Lee & the New Creative Collective’s A New Earth. “Music is a part of living on earth and when we get disconnected from that we lose a source of energy.”
Besides Lee’s work with his own band, the saxophonist seems to be popping up everywhere, particularly on an array of recordings. Very recent albums on which Lee’s horn is present include bluesman Bobby Rush’s Porcupine Meat and trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis & the Uptown Jazz Orchestra’s Make America Great Again! Others from the not too distant past include vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater with Irvin Mayfield’s New Orleans Jazz Orchestra’s Dee Dee’s Feathers, Dr. John’s Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch and The Spirit of Fi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors’ When that Morning Comes. Lee will also be heard on the soundtrack of the yet-to-be-released film The Comedian, which was scored by trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard.
From blues to jazz to Mardi Gras Indian music could be considered quite a stretch, though perhaps less so in New Orleans than other locales.
“I think it’s been happening and it’s just been building,” says Lee of being among the go-to guys when a recording session happens. “I got my doctorate with [leader/drummer] Benny Jones and [bass drummer/vocalist] Lionel Batiste in the Treme Brass Band, so I had these opportunities,” explains Lee, who enjoys being “beyond categorization.”
On a more fundamental level, which, granted, Lee is difficult to wrestle into, he acknowledges that he digs into as much research as he can and puts in the work. “I do my best to be a humble, eager and disciplined students of the arts.”
“My initial ‘landing’ was down in the Black Belt as they call it in Alabama—in Tuskegee,” says Lee of his birthplace, continuing in the philosophical jargon of Sun Ra. He then studied at Alabama’s Auburn University, headed to Boston and when considering his next place to “land” decided on New Orleans, a place where he enjoyed family roots as his mother’s father was from the Crescent City.
“It struck me that this was the perfect place,” Lee remembers. “Here we can really work with the art of the music.” He moved to New Orleans in order to earn his masters degree as a member of the Louis Armstrong Quintet at the University of New Orleans just a few months before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.
Some might remember that Khari Allen Lee used to be known simply as Khari Lee. “Allen is one of the family names that goes way back,” explains Lee, whose name as it appears on his birth certificate is an amazing eight names long. “It was a way to remember relatives,” he offers. “All names carry a vibration and resonance.”
Interestingly, Lee’s title cut, “A New Earth,” is a funky number, with drummer Geoff Clapp laying down a beat to changes rather reminiscent of the Meters’ “Cissy Strut.” Guitarist Davy Mooney, a new member of the band, doesn’t really travel that route, changing the direction to more straight-ahead jazz.
The spoken word as well as visual arts play an important part in A New Earth as well as all of Lee’s endeavors. Noted visual artist Marcus Akinlana contributed the colorful images on the album and also played percussion. “The idea is to bring many different forms of artistic expression together,” Lee says. He also sees the use of spoken word, on material such as the musically forward-seeking “Our Great Awakening,” as an important reminder that the voice was the original instrument.
“It’s something I feel I woke up with,” Lee says of the light that glows within him and reaches out through his music.
“There were those who helped me to remember that the arts are especially powerful because they can connect us to each other. It generates thrival not just survival. The artist must use his or her art to better the society. That’s what I’ve been called to do.”
“The idea of A New Earth is one of happiness, joy and celebration,” says Lee. To achieve that aim, the saxophonist offers the beauty of his composition “Solstice” while bringing in the works of like-minded wordsmiths like Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder and channeling the deep spirituality of the music of John Coltrane.
Even Louis Armstrong’s hit “What a Wonderful World” makes sense in the universe of the soulful and multidisciplinary Khari Allen Lee.