“Music is going to do what it’s always going to do,” said guitarist Lee Barbour, a staple in Charleston music not only as a songwriter but as a producer, composer, Ohm Radio co-founder and ringleader of jazz ensemble Gradual Lean.
“It’s going to uplift people. It’s going to help people. It’s going to make them feel things they may not have been able to feel before they heard it.”
He believes music reminds us all that it will always be there to be counted on.
“We are the ones changing. Our culture is changing and this pandemic has changed the way we relate to each other. Music is a constant.”
The first time he heard jazz was a When Harry Met Sally soundtrack on tape. “The sound of the bass really moved me, all the arrangements. I didn’t know anything about it, but I knew that I really liked it and was really attracted to it.”
He ended up coming back to jazz in college, studying it in lieu of classical music, drawn by the improvisational nature of the genre that was similar to the jam music he was fond of.
These days, Barbour navigates the throes of time management that inevitably come with being a musician and a parent. His role as a dad has honed his ability to focus when he has the chance to write a chart or compose, even if it’s only 20 minutes. Gone are the days of having six or seven hours in the studio to explore different patches or build out arrangements.
“What I really didn’t see coming is how much I would open up as a person, how much having a child has really opened me up as a musician. I think that’s really affected my music and how it’s coming out. It’s just a lot of weight that came to me kind of quickly, and I had to learn how to deal with it and it made me so much better in that I had to be vulnerable and responsible — it just naturally deepened my emotional intelligence.”
The odd thing about Charleston to Barbour is that there really isn’t a music industry despite the saturating talent. He’s been working with now-local producer Majeed Fick, who spent years in the L.A. and Miami scenes, and hopes that as new projects are released with a measure of success, they can create a production model and network to benefit local musicians.
“The infrastructure wasn’t there when I was young and coming up, and I guess I figured at some point there would be something, and there still isn’t,” Barbour said. “It’s become clear that no one is coming to save us, and we have to do it ourselves — and that’s fine.”
One of his current projects is a jazz album, entitled Influencers, an amalgam of jazz standards from the likes of Duke Ellington, John Coltrane and Miles Davis.
“I did some light arranging, but mostly I just wanted to play the songs and let them stand on their own and really show off the composers of these tunes and just play the tunes and improvise over them. I wanted to honor the composers who were original influencers of jazz and who wrote main tunes for jazz musicians to interpret.”
For the new album, Barbour put together two bands of local musicians that included Jonathan Lovett, Demetrius Doctor, Quentin Baxter, Charlton Singleton and Ron Wiltrout.
Mixing the project was a virtual collaborative process with Fick.
“We were mixing by phone in tandem with our computers. I would say, ‘Oh right here turn the sax up.’ It was extremely time intensive mixing this album because it was all done pretty much after the recording,” Barbour said.
Centering his attention on increasing his skillset as a guitarist requires him to wear many different hats as he books gigs for himself and his various projects while producing new original music — what he calls “electronica indie jazz.”
Barbour has tracks in the works with local singer-songwriter Heather Rice, his shape-shifting group Polyverse featuring Snarky Puppy trumpeter Justin Stanton and Kebbi Williams of Tedeschi Trucks.
“I wanted to honor the lineage that I’ve learned so much from, and now that I’ve done that it just feels like the doors are wide open.”