Bassist, composer and bandleader Robert Lee is emerging as a formidable talent in Toronto’s jazz scene.
In the last couple years, the 26-year-old has released two EPs of original compositions — one of chamber music called Blink, released last October, and one of modern jazz called Still Life, released this January — and he’s already in the midst of making his first full-length jazz album. Meanwhile, Lee has been playing professionally all around Ontario alongside artists like Allison Au, Trevor Giancola and Nick Mancini, including on the festival circuit like the Guelph Jazz Festival, the Newmarket Music Festival and the Kensington Market Jazz Festival.
Lee is a graduate of the University of Guelph’s music program and Humber College’s jazz school. Along the way, he earned the Duke Ellington Society Scholarship in 2017 and 2018, as well as the James Appel School Creative & Performing Arts Scholarship in 2018. Last year, he worked with Pat Metheny, arranging the composition Then and Now for the Humber Studio Band. Lee participated in our Jazzology program in 2018.
“It meant a lot for me to be recognized by my teachers and peers as someone who has grown as a young artist and someone who hopefully has an artistic voice that is meaningful to others,” he says.
We asked the up-and-coming musician to tell us more about his work since then, what keeps him creatively inspired, and what the jazz world can expect from his forthcoming debut album.
You’ve been doing quite a bit recently – an EP last October, and then another in January. Now you’re already working on a full-length album. What motivates you to always be keeping things moving creatively?
I think the biggest motivation for me is to constantly find inspiration from whatever comes my way. Whether it is discovering new music online or going to live shows, I find inspiration from so many talented artists. I see how creative people can be and this drives me to find my own creative voice. This consistently makes me excited to play and live in so many different [styles of] music, which in turn helps to inform my own artistic path.
Tell us a bit more about your style. What influences your compositions? Who do you admire?
I would describe my style as a large mixing pot of different music genres and styles. Again, I take inspiration from so much around me … I would describe it as modern jazz that is influenced by many different genres — folk, pop, spiritual, metal, singer/songwriter, etc.
If I had to choose some artists that I admire, I would definitely say Esperanza Spalding is one of them. Her ability to constantly evolve as an artist and create music that is constantly thoughtful but also musically deep is so inspiring. I strive to be an artist who, at a musical and technical level, can constantly create compositions. One of of my biggest influences is Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band. I find his music to be extremely moving and his ability to move an audience is very inspirational.
What can people expect from your upcoming album?
I plan to record a full-length album of original modern jazz compositions. This will be the culmination of everything that I have learned thus far as well as an opportunity for me to challenge myself as a composer and performer. The music [will] explore the idea of transcendence and how we as humans can be triggered by music and enter a new state of mind. Music is an incredible vehicle to connect people from all walks of life and my goal is to create music that will connect many different people.
What are some of your favourite gigs you’ve played recently?
One of my favourite gigs was performing at the Emmet Ray with some musicians that I admire. My former teacher Trevor Giancola and saxophonist Allison Au joined my group along with my close friends to perform my original compositions. It meant a great deal to me to not only perform my music but also share it with such amazing musicians who brought their own personalities into the music. I look forward to them joining me, along with vibraphonist Michael Davidson and my friends, in being a part of my album. I have also had the opportunity to perform at Musicfest Canada with Alex Dean and Ted Quinlan, and around Toronto with Dr. Andrew Scott.
How was your experience with the Jazzology program? What did you like about it?
Jazzology was a great experience. It allowed me the opportunity to discuss not only my music but also my musical journey. I really wanted to reflect deeply on my musical path and to have the opportunity to express that on Jazzology helped me see how far I have come and share that experience with others.
How did the program help with your personal and professional development?
Being selected to be a part of the program was a very humbling and exciting experience. It meant a lot for me to be recognized by my teachers and peers as someone who has grown as a young artist and someone who hopefully has an artistic voice that is meaningful to others. It also gave me a platform to display some of my compositions and share some of my musical influences. This may not have happened for me until later down the line so to have this opportunity on JAZZ.FM91 meant a great deal to me as a young artist.
Would you recommend it to other young musicians?
Absolutely. I think it is important that young musicians have this opportunity. We are all working hard to discover our own musical personality and to share it with the public. With that journey, it is exciting for me to see so many of my friends and peers share music that is unique to them and musically interesting. I love discovering new talent and I think this program is an amazing opportunity to display some of these incredible people.
If you could thank our donors that support the Jazzology program, what would you say?
Thank you so much for supporting this music and young musicians. In a time when sometimes we feel that music does not get enough credit and artistic expression is placed beneath the expectations of the public, to have a program that celebrates creativity means the world to us.
Why is music education important to you?
It is extremely important. I believe it was a Herbie Hancock quote, but something he said resonates with me to this day. Paraphrasing, he said music has helped me to live life to the fullest. I believe that music has allowed me to find a space where I can express myself freely and honestly. This process of musical learning has helped me to reinforce life values that help me to conduct myself with virtue. Ideas of discipline, hard work, practice, etc., can all be related to other things in my life. This is an amazing art form and I believe it can be a tremendous tool for the education system to teach young people how to not only express themselves positively, but also how to live their lives to the fullest.
What about your plans for the future? Where would you like to be years down the road?
I hope to continue my musical journey and constantly make music. I would like to be travelling with my band to all parts of the world, sharing my music with others, and creating music with my friends. I hope to continuously grow as a musician and as a human being and I think I have found the perfect way to achieve that.