Songs in the Key of Dee

Soul man Jesse Dee and his big band visit the Lost Horizon on Thursday

For all of the energy and soul of his live performances and recorded music, Jesse Dee is subdued on the phone. He’s slow and thoughtful in his responses, never giving away too much or embellishing his story.

Beneath his brunette puff of hair and the slick retro suits is a man simply moved by the soul of the sounds of Motown, 1950s pop and early rhythm and blues.

It goes without saying just moments into his own music, especially his latest CD, On My Mind/In My Heart.

The old soul in a 33-year-old body will perform Thursday, Dec. 5, 7 p.m., at the Lost Horizon, 5863 Thompson Road. He’ll be showing off his swagger and taste, as well as riding the retro wave that others, like Amy Winehouse, have brought back to the mainstream.

Dee didn’t set on a path to make music his life until college. He picked up a guitar around age 17 and sang in choirs and theater productions throughout school, yet went on to study visual arts including design, illustration and mixed media at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Music slowly took over.

“It wasn’t a distinct moment or decision,” Dee says from his home in Boston. “It just kind of happened, like these things sometimes do. I guess I suddenly ended up really just dedicating more of my time to music than to the visual art I was making and studying at the time. And I guess I slowly came to realize that I was just more passionate about making music.”

Dee had been writing for years, but it was also during his college years that he started performing those original works and figuring out the art of solo performance, “that whole singing and playing at the same time.”

Songs in the Key of DeeThings are different today. Dee commands the stages he mounts, leading big bands of six or more that grow with gigs closer to their Beantown home base. His songs are thick with orchestration and arrangements; Dee largely credits Scott Aruda, who arranged the horns on the new album as well as played trumpet and flugelhorn. Wherever Dee’s ideas begin, it’s usually a far cry from where they end.

“I am certainly lucky to work with some amazing musicians who take those ideas and catapult them much higher,” Dee says.

The result is a song package reminiscent of Smokey Robinson, touching on lyrical themes of love and loss that connect us all, with the help of a solid backbeat and melodic twists specific to the genre. But Dee is sympathetic to letting the song find its own way to that final point.

“I think, ultimately, I have ideas in my head, images of how I imagine a song to work or function and that would be anything from individual parts to the sum of those parts,” he explains. “If you start with an idea, I think it’s important to let the song itself dictate its arrangement and feel. Serve the song first and foremost.”

His first album, 2008’s Bittersweet Batch, did well to bring Dee to the spotlight as an artist capable of channeling his inner Berry Gordy. But his long-coming sophomore CD shows what a difference a few years, and a new record label, can make.

The break in discs wasn’t intentional, rather a product of the current plight of independent artists trying to raise incredible amounts of money to further their career. But after signing with Alligator Records earlier this year, Dee hopes the next album won’t have to wait so long.

“It will come out sooner than the last two,” he assures. “Now I have a means to put out a record. That will certainly be a benefit to working with a label like Alligator.”

When it comes to writing songs for the next work, it’s all natural. “I don’t have a set process {for songwriting},” Dee says. “I think it’s weird when people do. . . or maybe I’m just jealous when people do. Sometimes it’ll start with a melody or a lick or a chord progression or some lyrics or just a concept of what a song could function as. I want to say, more times than not, melody plays a big role just from singing to myself. I think because I can do that at various points of the day no matter what I’m doing. And if a melody pops into my head and I’m singing it and I can recall that a week later, that’s a good sign to keep working on it.”

The songs that are keepers definitely prove their worth and will once again when Dee makes his happy return to the Salt City. “You can only be in one place at one time, I’ve come to figure out,” he says. “Syracuse is one we’d love to play more than we do. It’s always exciting when we do get to come back. I’m looking forward to the show.”


Just the Facts:
Who: Jesse Dee, plus opener Mike Powell.
Where: Lost Horizon, 5863 Thompson Road.
When: Thursday, Dec. 5, 7 p.m.
Admission: $10. Click HERE for details.

Advice from the Artist:
“No. 1 is to absolutely love what you do. And if you don’t, there’s no point in trying to be a musician. And I would also say No. 2: Learn as much as you can and become as proficient as you can playing your instrument and reading and writing music.”


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