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Vernon Reid on Spectrum Road

August 15, 2012
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“Vernon Reid is my favorite guitar player. I try to get him in my bands whenever I can,” enthuses renowned bassist, singer, and composer Jack Bruce. These are pretty heavy words when you consider all the exalted ax men—Eric Clapton, John McLaughlin, and Mick Taylor among them—Bruce has worked with over the years. Of course music is not a competition, but the fact Reid’s playing resonates so deeply with a legend like Bruce is a substantial endorsement.

Most guitarists first became aware of Reid through Living Colour, a New York City-based quartet whose game-changing 1988 release Vivid was an incendiary mix of rock, funk, metal, and rap. Especially intriguing were Reid’s rapid-fire solos, which channeled the blues, and sometimes quoted bebop grammar, but quite regularly careened off in the direction of free jazz. Despite several successful follow- up albums, Grammy awards, multi-platinum sales, festival-headliner status, and a bona-fide rock anthem in the song “Cult of Personality,” Living Colour disbanded in 1995. (The band reformed in 2003, and is planning a new CD and tour for 2013.) During the downtime, Reid’s creative spirit and major cred within the musical community led to a series of other projects such as the eclectic solo offering Mistaken Identity, turns at film scoring (Paid in Full, Mr. 3000), Grammynominated production work (Salif Keita, James “Blood” Ulmer), and myriad collaborations that included recording and touring with Bruce.

Building on a shared love of the fusion music of drummer Tony Williams’ seminal ensemble Lifetime, Reid and Bruce formed the Tony Williams Lifetime Tribute Band with drummer Cindy Blackman-Santana and keyboardist John Medeski for a series of concerts in Japan in 2008. Bruce—who had toured and recorded with the original Tony Williams Lifetime for a stint in the early ’70s after leaving Cream— became the de facto curator of the legacy, continuing the ensemble as Spectrum Road. The band has since recorded Spectrum Road [Palmetto], which mixes reworkings of Tony Williams tunes from multiple eras alongside two new compositions.

How did you first get involved with Jack Bruce and Spectrum Road?

Jack reached out to me to play on A Question of Time in 1989, and again on some tours and albums with his band, the Cuicoland Express. It has been pretty amazing because ever since I was a kid I knew “da da duh da da” (sings Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” riff), so getting to play with someone of Jack’s stature and ability is not something I take for granted. Spectrum Road came about because I was always asking Jack what it was like to play with Tony Williams, and to be a part of the whole fusion scene of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Tony was one of the first jazz guys to go after the rock-jazz fusion thing. A lot of people think it was Miles Davis who influenced Tony in that regard, but it was really the other way around. Tony was still a teenager when the Beatles came out, so he grew up with both rock and jazz. He wasn’t just a jazz drummer who experimented with rock—they were both part of his lineage. After his death in 1997, it seemed to me like his fusion music was going to be marginalized and ignored. This project was started as a tribute to Tony, but it has really taken on its own identity, and now it’s about capturing the spirit of those early fusion recordings.

As the link to the original Lifetime, did Jack offer any guidance on how to approach the tunes?

Not specifically. Some of the songs we chose to record were from either before or after Jack’s tenure in the band, so there were no preconceived notions there. Jack did say that back in the day they’d often only play one or two tunes in concert because the improvisation started going in a certain direction and they just followed it. Back then, even an arena rock band like Led Zeppelin would play one song for 30-plus minutes in concert, and be able to approach it in a totally avant-garde and uninhibited way. It was a different time when the idea of the musical journey was valid, and that’s something we wanted to bring back.

Was it daunting to have to answer the legacy of guitarists like Ted Dunbar, John McLaughlin, and Allan Holdsworth, who had played on the original Lifetime recordings?

I tried to not think about what anyone else had done on any given tune. Obviously, they were all amazing cats, but having their ghosts sitting on my shoulder wasn’t going to help my playing. I just concentrated on going in and doing my thing. When I was younger I’d taken some lessons with Ted Dunbar, and I wound up quoting some of his phrases on “There Comes a Time,” but I didn’t do it consciously. I think his influence just crept in because I had always loved his playing on that tune, and those phrases were already in my vocabulary.

How did you approach the freeform improvisation sections on tunes like “Where”?

First and foremost, you have to be prepared to let go of expectations. You have to participate in the musical interaction that’s going on around you. You can’t just sit back and play your pre-rehearsed licks. It’s like if you were to have a conversation with someone and there’s a joke that you want to tell. Instead of hearing what the other person is saying, you’re just looking for the opportune time to get your joke in. You’re not really communicating. Freeform improvisation can also tie in to the concept of karma, which is the idea that the choices you make have consequences that affect other people in a very wideranging way. If I introduce a specific phrase or melodic idea into the musical conversation, it’s going to affect what Jack, Cindy, and John are going to play, and ultimately where the entire improvisation is going to go.

Your playing, especially in a rock context, has always been a bit outside of what’s considered traditional.

Very often, people are constrained by the dictates of tradition. You can loosen those constraints, but you have to approach that thoughtfully. If you want to play outside the key there’s a way to do it that’s incompetent— you’re just playing out of key because you don’t know where you are—and there’s a way to do it that’s competent. Take [saxophonist] James Moody for example. He was a master at playing a half-step above the changes. He was playing out-of-key, but it created this beautiful tension because he knew specifically what he was doing and he knew how to resolve it. I always try to be in complete control of what I’m doing, while still allowing what’s going on around me to influence me.

Did you use your new Parker signature guitar on Spectrum Road?

Yes. It’s called a Parker Freakfly and it has a Floyd Rose system, an EMG 81X in the bridge, EMG 81 SAX single-coils in the middle and neck positions, a Roland GKKIT- GT3 MIDI pickup, and a V-shaped neck. I also played a 1958 Gibson ES-355 and my custom Hamer Chaparral. For amps, I used my Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier, an old Fender Twin that was at the studio, and a Randall MTS Blackface Module.v

Are there any future plans for Living Colour?

Definitely. We’ll be back as a band in 2013. We recently participated in a tribute to Robert Johnson at the Apollo Theater. We played his “Preachin’ Blues,” and it was a powerful moment for us, as it got us thinking about the reconnection of heavy metal and the blues. That’s something we’d like to explore on the next recording. Metal has gone on to become highly technical and separated from the blues. The thing about Sabbath and Zeppelin for me was this organic connection they had to folk music and the blues. So many great riffs like “Sunshine of Your Love,” Zeppelin’s “The Ocean,” or Bad Brains’ “Re-Ignition” come from a simple blues scale. And when you think about it, they were all just happy accidents. There’s no formula for writing a great riff—you’ve got to be in the right musical space and hope that the happy accidents happen.

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