Vernon Reid, most widely recognized as the guitarist from late 80s/early 90s evolutionary rock group Living Colour, is no stranger to the world of experimental music. He has worked with everyone from the legendary experimental guitarist David Torn, to the avant minded turntablist DJ Logic. For his latest project Free Form Funky Freqs, (aka Free Form Funkafifelth) Reid teams up with free jazz bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and powerhouse drummer Calvin Weston. The band, which was born out of a fundraising gig for the now defunct NYC uber hip venue Tonic, performs music that is not composed or planned in advance. In fact, at their live shows, the band makes a point to avoid performing a sound check together so as not to ruin the vibe of the spontaneity. After the group’s second show, they decided to record an album using the same approach they use live – to just do it.
The album, Urban Mythology, Volume One, is a futuristic journey led by Reid’s thoughtful, decisive guitar playing. The session, which was laid to tape live with no overdubs, is divided up into tracks and comes across more like a carefully composed project. The songs themselves are strong, some with a minimalist stripped down feel, and others like the rocker “Over and Under” dominate with a screaming guitar sound more akin to Reid’s work with Living Colour.
Glide’s Joe Adler recently spoke with Reid, currently #66 on Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time list, about Urban Mythology and also about his past, present and future.
Lets start with your musical development, and what pulled you into playing music.
The main thing that attracted me to guitar was “Black Magic Woman”. That particular track sold me, so I would credit that. I was affected by rock, funk, and a certain type of jazz really affected me. I grew up listening to pop music on the AM radio, something that’s now ancient history really. And it was very powerful when Jimi Hendrix was on Dick Cavet’s show. The first thing’s I remember hearing are James Brown, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Supremes, The Temptations, and Smokey Robinson.
So were you playing guitar back then when you were a kid listening to this music?
Not until I was a teenager. I was interested in all kinds of stuff. I liked to draw, I like drawing. And I was an active reader and liked science fiction a lot. So I’m a big fan of Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein. It’s interesting because I think a lot about Bradbury/Heinlein, with Bradbury being like a more wacky Philip K Dick, far to the left. They were both great writers. So those were the things that interested me… and slot cars and comic books and things like that. And music, I liked music, I loved music, and guitar, I’d heard it, I kinda dug it.
And then there was a jazz workshop in my high school and I had a teacher named Gene Ghee who was a saxophonist who actually played with Sam River’s Ensemble. I had a delightful encounter with him years later when I was traveling with Ronald Shannon Jackson and he was actually in Europe as well. It was this magical kinda thing because he was the first person to play (for me) John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” and Miles Davis, in this after school program. It was an after school program where he’d play James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” and then Mongo Santa Maria’s “Cold Sweat”, he’d do a comparative study thing. You know I probably wouldn’t have become a musician if it wasn’t for that after school workshop and this particular teacher. And he never became a household name, but he was a great man to me, he was a wonderful guy. People can make a real difference.
I would also credit a classmate of mine Raymond Jones, who is a keyboardist, pianist, arranger, composer, songwriter. It’s a crime that he’s not more known, but he’s a fantastic player. And he introduced me to a lot of great music. So I would say those are two of the people that mainly influenced me. I think the primary thing though with Raymond Jones, and Raymond moved onto to play with Chic during their golden age, he wrote these amazing songs. And it’s a funny thing in the world he was in, where there was certain kind of aquarium that black artists were in unless you were in jazz straight up.
Do you think things have changed much?
I think in a way, the music industry abandoned its principles long ago. I am very strong for the people who are hard working and honest and really make a difference. And, of course, I feel really sorry for what’s happening for artists now. But the industry itself, the people who really cared, Nesuhi Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, their times have passed a long time ago, Ahmet Ertegun, for that matter. And Nesuhi, he cared about the songs. He’ll put out (Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s) 3 Sided Dream in Audio Color and it’s a shame that that kind of vision doesn’t take institutional loot. And those types of folks fall far between, the industry crushes them up.
A lot of what I hear from you is an activist spirit for the downtrodden artist. Is that strength of mind what lead you to help found the Black Rock Coalition back in 1985?
Yeah. It’s sort of like, I’ve always been attracted to the downtrodden and ignored, I’ve just got to admit it. And the funny thing is that orthodoxy forces avant garde into this defensive position where it’s not the tradition, it’s not this, it’s not that, this is why I embrace marginalized and edgy artists that are not following the orthodoxy of the times, that’s what’s exciting to me. The orthodoxy is fabulous, the classics are fabulous, but you’ve got to respect the will to accomplish things. And certainly there has been this rise of a kind of orthodoxy, which at one time incorporated exploration and transformation of the work.
The industry very largely repudiated it, and it will all become very very conservative. And it’s just very funny to me, people assume that the avant garde is going to be atonal or it’s going to have no melody, it’s going to be “noise”. I’m a champion for taste, and, it’s funny because the Black Rock Coalition started out as just a bunch of friends. I called my friends and I said, ‘Am I going crazy, am I going nuts?’ And they said, ‘no no, you’re not nuts. ‘And it really just evolved.
Greg Tate, the writer, was a part of it. And back in those days, Craig Street, the producer, was also a part of it. He is actually the one who came up with the name Black Rock Coalition. It just sort of evolved. It started out as a community and it continues to this day. And part of the notion of it was, how are we going to turn the music industry upside down? Organize protests and such? And one of the ironies of it is that it happened for the band Living Colour. And it was strange.
With Living Colour you really saw the machine and people who wanted to use your music to make money. How did that affect your art?
Living Colour was definitely part of a couple of evolutionary things. We would not have existed if it wasn’t for the Bad Brains. I couldn’t have held onto the dream of “it”, and without “Little Red Corvette” and “I Wanna Be Your Lover," it wouldn’t have happened at all. Things have to seem possible. Even if there is just a possibility, a possibility remains. And that’s part of what the journey is for the band and the Black Rock Coalition. And I always said, about the band, that we had as much of a chance to make it as a snowball in a pizza oven.
The Living Colour songs, and really the overall sound, were, and still are, very relevant.
It cut through the noise. It’s so funny because there are so many other aspects of it that wouldn’t have happened without me being trained in possibility by Ronald Shannon Jackson, and Ornette Coleman by extension because Ronald was shaped largely by his experience with Ornette. And part of it for Living Colour was criss-crossing the country to play these universities. Playing at first to not that many people, and then we’d go back and there would be 50 people, and then we would go back and the place would be packed.
So moving on to your more avant-garde group, Free Form Funky Freqs, how did you first meet up with Calvin (Weston) and Jamaaladeen (Tacuma)?
I think Jamaaladeen had just finished playing with Ornette. And Calvin, I met Calvin when he replaced Shannon in Ornette’s band. We’re all sorta connected via a relationship with Ornette Coleman. Shannon played with Ornette, then I played with Shannon. Jamaaladeen literally played in the band (Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time) with (James) Blood (Ulmer) and Shannon. And then Calvin came in and replaced Shannon when Shannon left to form his own group The Decoding Society. That’s the family tree/familial connection.
What do you make of the way Ornette got treated when he was, at times, bashed by the critics because he played a plastic horn and his music didn’t to them, “make sense”?
The battle lines are always up. People are prepared to battle over many things. And Charlie Parker played a plastic horn too! But that actually comes to technological innovation. Technological movements have always been contested, and they always will be contested. And we’re talking about things like the move from analog to digital. I was recently on a panel with a bunch of producers who were talking about analog to digital. And I’ve worked in both mediums and I love analog and the sound of it. But the question turned to, will digital ever equal or surpass analog? And people said yes, no, yes. And I said of course it’s gonna happen. I said it’s gonna happen like photography. In digital photography you have more and more information in a smaller smaller space.
If you think it’s not going to happen (with digital recording) by 2020, you’ve got to be kidding yourself. I mean we started out recording on wax cylinders. This is all part and parcel, there will come a time when, literally, hard drive space and file size will be irrelevant. Nobody thought a memory stick would have like 8 gigs! I mean, that’s insane. And the thing is we just take it for granted, I have an iPod with a 180 gig hard drive. That’s nuts. And these days, you could literally make an incredible record with one of these handheld stereo recorders. Why not? I mean records were (originally) made essentially the same way. Records were made by just placing mics in particular parts of the room and you would go back and listen and move the mic closer or further from the bass. And that makes these records sound wonderful. And there was one or two channels, this was before stereo. Ahh sorry! I go on little mini rants! (laughs)
So going from there, tell me about the new Funky Free Form Freqs album Urban Mythology, Volume One. I read that the recording session was just your third performance as a band?
Yeah that’s our third performance, now we’re up to performance 22. The method of counting is that if we play two sets (in a show), each set will counts as a performance. That includes the record.
The album is great, and it’s amazing that there are no overdubs and that it is completely improvised. It sounds much more like a thought out process in the intricacies of the songs and their structures.
Yeah and there are very distinct movements. It was funny when we were doing these improvisations and things and it was very digable. The thing about it is, to make a record like this, like a total groove band, is very much how Teo Macero was able to produce Bitches Brew. And just like in writing a novel, the novel is not every word that was said. But the key thing is that there were no additional guitars added. Everything that you hear, happened in the time that it happened. I have a kind of system where several things can happen at once. Like the guitar synth will be going, and then I can loop the actual guitar. That’s what’s kinda cool about it.
What was the setup you had for the album?
OK, so when I made that record I definitely had a Digitech Space Station which allowed me to do the backwards thing. I also use a Boomerang. Amp-wise I had a Crate and Mesa Boogie. I used a GR-20 for the synth sounds.
Yeah the guitar synth really keeps the flow of the songs going. When it gets going, it’s almost like an extra member of the band.
Those textures fill in a lot of space. I use a lot of modeling pedals so I’m able to blend things in and out in one particular texture. There are four different distinct things going on, or is it five, and I also use a GS-10. There are at least three different guitar type things and two different synth things that are involved in the layers and I’m controlling them using volume pedals. That’s why you’ll hear on the record, the guitar texture will shift real perceptively.
Have the songs on the album crept into the live shows at all?
We have done “Over and Under” live. But it will literally become this abstract version of what we did on the record. The whole thing of doing this loop thing, this kinda 2 note melody and adding these harmonies, is a lot of what we worked with and a lot of that comes back. Oh, and we did “Don Cheadle” live.
That’s one of my favorites on the album.
Oh yeah, well thank you. And with the title, I didn’t want to give them numbers, so I was like OK, and I just threw some titles up. And “Don Cheadle,” that’s like a nod to Miles Davis naming a track “Billy Preston” or “John McLaughlin”. And Don Cheadle is one of my favorite actors. And if I didn’t name it “Don Cheadle” I would have named it “Laurence Fishburne” because Laurence is a dear friend and he’s also one of my favorites. There is going to be another track sometime named “Laurence Fishburne”!
So I heard a copy of the show you guys played in Vienna on your fall 2007 tour and it was completely different from the album. Near the end, it had a hip hop vibe with Calvin improvising some lyrics.
Well we’ve had shows that are more head type shows, and shows that are total body shows. We did a show where we moved into a John Lee Hooker type of boogie, and it’s not like we said we’re going to do a boogie now, we just kinda went into it. We’ve done shows where we’ve had punk interludes, metal interludes and even a Middle Eastern or Arabic type of thing. We’ve had things that sounded totally like house music; and we did a show in Switzerland where it became a freaky crazy dance party. So it’s not beholden to fusion or the so called avant-garde.
I recorded pretty much all of the shows and one of the things I avoided was listening while we were on tour because I didn’t want to turn around and infect the process. And it’s a very risky strategy because we had shows that were like incandescent and then we had shows that were like eh. But I think that’s true in any and all music. And when I reflect back on the tour there were some crazy unexpected things, and then there were just really odd notes where Jamaaladeen and I will just be playing these things in unison and it sounds very much like this is a tune. So maybe “Laurence Fishburne” is in there hiding!
So maybe he will come out on Volume 2.
I think he definitely will come out on Volume 2!
So let’s talk about improvising on the guitar. Do you have a strategy?
Well you know, it’s funny, it is a process everyday, engaging the instrument everyday. I’ve been playing a long time and it’s so funny because my reason for playing is the notion of transformation, transcendence. And it’s not like proving I’m a bad mother fucker. It comes down to my desire to transcend my desire to be liked, to play well, and to really get to what it is, and it happens only when I trust and let these other things kind of take control.
I remember, I sat in with Joe Satriani, he was playing Town Hall. So I’m sitting in the back and listening to this guy destroy the guitar. It’s sick, sick. And I was literally kinda like, oh my God, what am I gonna do?! And my inner voice was like, ‘just play’. And I suddenly stopped shivering and going through what I was going through. And we had the best time. And the best thing about it was that I met Mrs. Satriani after the show and she said, ‘you play very well.’ And I said, ‘Mrs. Satriani, you would know! ‘ And it was a great moment.
So who were some other musicians who you’ve enjoyed playing with?
I have been very fortunate that I have engaged in song writing and improvisation and film scoring, to a degree, and to work with some many crazy, wonderful people. I’ve played with Eddie Hazel, Carlos Santana, with Buddy Guy. And not just the famous people, I’ve played onstage with Bobby Drayton, Michael Hill and Calvin Bell… and Jean-Paul Bourelly. Some people are not as well known as they really need to be. And all of these people are just very special and unique. And I’ve just had these meetings with wonderful players, Bill Frisell to David Torn. It’s been fantastic and continues to be. And if I can be, in any way, a part of that mosaic and add anything to the conversation, then I’m happy.