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Vernon Reid: Mistaken Identity

Vernon Reid
Vernon Reid

It’s a crisp February night in Manhattan, and Vernon Reid is tooling around the backstage corridor at Joe’s Pub after a loud, audacious early set with the Free Form Funky Freqs, a trio of harmolodic veterans including drummer G. Calvin Weston and bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma. In typical Joe’s fashion, tonight’s schedule is mingled, and this foyer follows suit: Longtime Reid colleague and friend, the bassist Melvin Gibbs, is milling around while the singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw sits off to the side in a dressing room, tuning a vintage Stratocaster. At some point a lanky, post-adolescent male with hipster gruff on his face sidles up next to Reid, and proceeds to gush the kind of starry-eyed, “You changed my life, man” genuflection no jazz-inclined guitarist, save for perhaps the Police’s Andy Summers, is commonly privy to. This is but one of the dualities that Vernon Reid presents: He’s at once the outré downtown maven and the guitar hero fit for immortality in the Hard Rock Cafe.

“Saw them at Joe’s Pub, pretty good show, it was all improv, they’re amazing sometimes, but inconsistent,” comments one messageboard writer, hitting the bullseye then splitting the arrow.

“When [the Freqs] go onstage, I go out with no anxiety, no attachment and I don’t know what it’s going to be. I’m just making contact. It goes where it’s going, and changes as it’s changing,” Reid says the following day at his New York City home. He’s reinforcing how the Freqs improvise without a net: not playing a predestined theme and taking it into the stratosphere, not agreeing on a rhythmic pattern as a starting point-not even deciding beforehand on a single genre or electronic texture to deconstruct. Born a haphazard one-off experiment, FFFF quickly became a project with a strict code of performance ethics.

The trio’s, to borrow Reid’s phrase, “personal history” stems from Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, the electric band wherein the visionary saxophonist matched his harmolodic theory with James Brown’s rhythms and the sonic accoutrements of rock ‘n’ roll, in the process creating the niche-within-a-niche critics call “free funk.” Tacuma appeared on Coleman’s Dancing in Your Head from 1973 and 1976’s Body Meta. Both of those albums also featured Ronald Shannon Jackson, the Texas-born drummer who plucked a teenage Reid for his Decoding Society, and who can only be described as an all-star avant-gardist. The grunting, thrusting Weston replaced Jackson in Prime Time, appearing on 1979’s Of Human Feelings. “I’m two steps removed, since they actually played with Ornette,” says Reid. “Because of that we had that relationship but we never actually played together.”

The experiment started as an off-the-cuff jam at the now-shuttered venue Tonic; at a following date in Philadelphia, Tacuma arrived just minutes before showtime and forced the group to fend for itself before an audience. “It would have been one thing if we’d just played together a bunch of times and were improvising. But the fact that we had never done it … afforded an opportunity to really watch the process,” says Reid.

That process was captured with remarkable clarity on gig No. 3, Urban Mythology: Volume One, the Freqs’ Thirsty Ear debut. The album, like the gig I witnessed at Joe’s (No. 23, Reid tells me), implies harmolodics less than it does the brand of heavy-metal funk Reid concocted in the mid-to-late 1980s. “A Tale of Two Bridges” rests a guitar-synth loop and Reid’s go-for-broke guitar lines on Weston’s torrential backbeats; “Nappy Hour” rides a disco rhythm into outer space. At the live show, certain Prime Time-isms arose-the group improvisations that mirror Joe Zawinul’s “nobody solos, everybody solos” sentiment, as well as Tacuma’s impromptu modulations. On the record, they better resemble a very, very interesting jam band.

As a rule the Freqs do not soundcheck as a threesome-they set levels in pairs, but don’t take the bandstand as a trio until the start of the gig. Reid even has specific notions of how the project should end, with either 100 performances, or 365 to quantify what’s possible after literally a full year’s worth of collaborations. He has a keen understanding of the nature of this beast, of how alternately dynamic or tedious the outcome can be. At Joe’s, some moments were transcendent; other times were a tale of sound and fury, signifying little more than stray beats and trebly guitar. “We’ve had situations when the audience was totally with us and it becomes this really high moment. … Then we’ve had [gigs] when it’s totally uphill, and it’s a jazz club, and the [audience] is like, ‘What are you guys doing? When are you going to play a tune?’

To resort to cliché, the journey matters more than the destination: “I’ve had experiences where we’re playing, and I actually am just like an audience member; I’m like, ‘Where the hell is this going?’ … It’s like a story that reveals itself in the process,” says Reid.

Stories are something Reid has no shortage of. His resume includes reinventing the black American jazz avant-garde with the Decoding Society and achieving rock stardom as the leader of the black heavy-metal group Living Colour, which, aside from imploding stereotypes about who can play hard rock, introduced a musical and lyrical intellectualism to a genre that has historically exploited the lowest common denominator. Avant-garde credentials like Joseph Bowie’s Defunkt and Guitar Obique with fellow six-string mavericks David Torn and Elliott Sharp are two of numerous collaborations.

And that’s just what people who’ve followed his career arc are familiar with: He casually remembers tracking at NYC’s now-defunct Unique Recording Studios for Madeleine Peyroux’s 1996 debut, Dreamland (that’s his creaking Americana guitar you hear on “Walkin’ After Midnight”), and having a surreal face-to-face encounter with rap legend the Notorious B.I.G. He recalls jamming with John Fogerty at the White House’s Millennium Celebration, only to peer into the audience and catch Bill Clinton singing along to “Fortunate Son.”

When he’s not actually strapped to a guitar, he might be equally prolific. In 1985, Reid co-founded the Black Rock Coalition, an African-American musicians’ collective he has accurately described as an artistic analogy to the NAACP. He’s a longtime photographer with serious gallery showings. As a writer he’s been a contributor to the Village Voice and has had bylines in Rolling Stone. Turn on VH1 and sooner or later he’ll crop up as a talking head offering actual insight. As a producer he delivered his harmolodic mentor, guitarist-cum-troubadour James “Blood” Ulmer, to the hard blues scene in the 2000s, making inroads to rescue contemporary blues music from its current tourist-trap bar-band nightmare. He’s acted as something of a public intellectual, representing a set of African-American artists who need not choose between hip-hop, rock, jazz and the avant-garde, art and commerce, high culture and low.

He’s a husband, a father, and a lifelong New Yorker, but he doesn’t call home to Manhattan, or even Brooklyn, despite growing up there. He lives on Staten Island, where he’s part of yet another art-minded organization, the Staten Island Composers Project with New York Doll David Johansen and Hair auteur Galt MacDermot.

The three-story Victorian house Reid shares with his second wife and young daughter in the borough that birthed the Wu-Tang Clan is impressive, not because it’s ritzy or huge or especially hooked up, but because the continuity between man and habitat makes perfect sense. There’s little here that suggests rock stardom-his two Grammy awards are tucked away in an office; a totally average Subaru Outback sits in the drive.

Among the numerous guitars lying in wait throughout the house, a dusty Strat-style “Frankenstein” guitar rests against a wall in a third-floor studio, which is not to be confused with the manic studio space that takes up the first-floor dining room area. For fans of modern art, the abstraction painted onto the instrument is unmistakable. “That is an original Keith Haring,” says Reid. “He asked me if he should sign it. I said, ‘Hell yeah!'” I inquire if Reid knew Haring’s contemporary Jean-Michel Basquiat, the iconic downtown artist who did for black artists in the fine art world what Reid did for black musicians working in rock. “I knew Basquiat. It’s funny because I said to Basquiat, ‘Keith Haring did a painting on one of my guitars. How about you do one?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, man, you should bring it by the studio, and then … you know, he died.'”

It’s a telling anecdote that points up how Reid has been a rare constant that extends from the downtown NYC scene’s glory years, before zero tolerance, outsized real-estate prices and transplants sipping nine-dollar beers overtook cheap lofts and low-rent clubs.

Vernon Reid was born in the north of London to Caribbean parents in August of 1958, and was introduced to New York City shortly thereafter. “I was brought to America when I was two years old, and so my reference point is pretty much New York/Brooklyn,” he says. “I never went to the West Indies on vacation or anything. So I heard about it, but it was very distant from me. My growing up was pretty much an urban childhood.”

Smitten by the guitar as a youngster via Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix, he got heavily into the instrument as a teen and studied music with reedist Gene Ghee in high school, a sideman to Sam Rivers and Julius Hemphill. He also dug funk-“I’m someone who came up as a fan. … hearing [Funkadelic’s] Cosmic Slop and actually meeting George Clinton,” he says. Through Melvin Gibbs, Reid was introduced to Jackson and eventually debuted with Decoding Society on Eye on You in 1980.

In September 1981, a New York Times article predicted that Jackson’s free funk would dictate the music’s future in the way that Miles’ early fusion albums did. Things didn’t exactly pan out that way, but Decoding Society was a deep achievement: The band proved fusion could evolve into something other than the deplorable New Age or smooth-jazz genres, and made clear that hard-rock textures and ideas had a place within the jazz avant-garde. The Decoding Society also set the stage for the Steve Coleman-spearheaded M-Base movement that would spawn keyboardist Geri Allen, Greg Osby and others.

Accounts of the formative Reid recall a fine student, an intellectual searcher, a young artist as obsessed with pushing boundaries as with organization and burrowing into technology. “If you could get into his hotel room, the first thing you’d find is a guitar, music and books all over the place. That’s what he was carrying-computers,” says Jackson from his home in Fort Worth. “He’s like Herbie Hancock without a degree … If [a new electronic gadget] was coming out, he’d have to take it apart to see how it works. … Ornette Coleman was the same way. Vernon’s the same way.”

Jackson remembers a responsible young man, influenced greatly by hardworking parents including a devout Catholic mother and a father who worked as an air-traffic controller at JFK International. In the collectively run Decoding Society, Jackson made the young guitarist the band’s treasurer “for the simple reason that he was the kind of person that you could trust, and two, you knew he would take care of the business correctly.”

Reid spent the early to mid-1980s in adventurous obscurity. He recorded with John Zorn, appearing on The Big Gundown, the saxophonist’s historic 1985 tribute to Italian film-score composer Ennio Morricone. In 1984 he teamed with fellow downtowner Bill Frisell for the Smash & Scatteration album, an unabashed eccentricity on several counts. In many ways it’s a slave to the times-the rudimentary drum machine thaps reminiscent of early hip-hop crop up on several tracks, and the numerous guitar synths today inspire comparison to a grade-Z horror-film score. In other instances it hints at things to come: While “Landscapes in Alternative History” is an exercise in funhouse dementia, “Amarillo, Barbados” finds Frisell prematurely taking hold of the meditative Nashvillian undertones he’d gain popularity with a decade later.

Beginning in 1983 he led various incarnations of Living Colour, including those with Allen and drummer Pheeroan akLaff. Reid would eventually solidify the group as an all-male quartet and release 1988’s partially Mick Jagger-produced Vivid (Epic), the album that made the band a suburban rock phenomenon. LC’s success had much to do with Reid’s being simultaneously inventive and systematic. “He was … connecting the avant-rock with the avant-jazz but also finding a pop way to do it. He’s actually a really good songwriter,” says Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke, who praises Reid as a melodist and named him Stone’s 66th best guitarist of all time in 2003. “There’s a certain organizational quality to everything he does. … Clearly he understands pop moves-when a chorus needs to work and when you need to shred.”

Despite such endorsements, to recall the heyday of Living Colour, who continue to gig in fine form today, is to be somewhat blinded by dated aesthetics. A YouTube clip of the band performing its biggest hit, “Cult of Personality,” on the Arsenio Hall Show oozes the bombast that defined the era: Corey Glover, in loud bike shorts and tank top, sings verses while hustling up and down the theater aisles; during the guitar solo, Reid makes John McLaughlin sound like Jim Hall. Still, the cultural significance of LC’s breakthrough shouldn’t go underestimated.

“They never wanted to be just a rock band. It made it harder, but the people who stayed with them understood that, because there were qualities about blackness that were fundamental to their rock,” says Fricke. “And it wasn’t just Chuck Berry. … It was about Miles and it was about Coltrane and it was about George Clinton. The black and the rock were indivisible.”

Reid sees the history of black rock as a secret one, a white-centric timeline that “does not acknowledge the rock bands post-Hendrix … does not acknowledge the underground status of Parliament/Funkadelic.” During a lengthy conversation regarding the Democratic nomination, which at this time was still very much up in the air, he places Living Colour in a cultural “mosaic” of black American achievement that “will make Barack Obama’s presidency possible. If I was to make a flow chart of that, it would include Prince, it would include Lenny Kravitz, it would include the Williams Sisters, it would include Tiger Woods … Eddie Murphy … Michael Jordan. In each case you’re talking about groups or individuals who either defied expectations or did extraordinary things.”

Still, because of the racial pigeonholing that often passes as marketing in the record industry, those connections were often evident only to the most cerebral rock fans. In the general milieu of pop music and culture, the superficial “black metal band” tag made the group seem, to some at least, less like cultural harbingers and more like a hugely talented rock act with a gimmick.

“Think about it: There’s only one [black] group on the planet who can make a rock record?” chuckles Jackson. He continues, “It’s the travesty of the industry; it’s the bullshit of the industry. What [the industry] said was, here’s a black group that can play on the same level of Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones. What they didn’t say was that the same people, if Charlie Parker and Mingus were still playing, they could play with them too. … I grew up playing with the Ray Charles band, but what they were were a bunch of jazz musicians from Dallas and Fort Worth. When you put it out on the road it was called rock and roll.”

Unlike Jackson, who harvests well-deserved spite for a Stateside music infrastructure that severely shortchanges “great black music”-he recalls playing three U.S. gigs in four years in Prime Time-Reid’s willingness to embrace technology and art seems to have admonished any bitterness about the ebbs and flows of his career, political or creative. Says Fricke, “I never got the feeling that Vernon felt he’d been done dirty. Obviously he was dealing with an industry that had a certain institutional racism he had to fight. … [He’s maintained the attitude of,] this is what you do as a working artist, and if you’re a working black artist, you have extra hurdles to deal with, but none of them are insurmountable.”

In 1991 the rock band Nirvana shook up the pop mainstream, popularizing punk sonics and painfully introspective songwriting and, in the process, deflating the worth of ’80s values such as the expert rock-guitar solo. When Rolling Stone published its “The Immortals” issue in 2004, Reid rendered a deep appreciation of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. He even deconstructed his primitive yet effective guitar style and defined its importance. “Cobain was a terrific guitarist,” wrote Reid. “You can’t say Cobain was a great songwriter but not a great guitarist, because he couldn’t have written those songs without the guitar.”

When I suggest that he might be resentful toward the proliferation of hip-hop for robbing the world of its next Living Colour, he almost instantly rebuts, offering up critics’ darlings TV on the Radio and modernist bluesman Chris Thomas King as black Americans carrying the original BRC ideologies. And he endorses and defends hip-hop, with his words and music. In the ’80s he played on the rap group Public Enemy’s canonized Yo! Bum Rush the Show album; today he reiterates how “the turntable as an instrument is extraordinary, that re-appropriation of technology,” drawing lines from Marchel Duchamp and Dada to master DJs like Grand Wizard Theodore. DJ Logic, another of that instrument’s innovators and its most jazz-indebted practitioner, joins Reid in the Yohimbe Brothers, who, in the spirit of hip-hop art, purposefully pull from nearly every imaginable genre.

Beginning in 1996 with the Teo Macero-co-produced Mistaken Identity, Reid has issued three solo albums, the latter two, 2004’s Known Unknown and 2006’s Other True Self, also crediting his band Masque. They boast, unsurprisingly, an almost schizophrenic shift in idioms: Even jazz standards, including Monk’s “Brilliant Corners” and Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder,” are interpreted through Reid’s singular prism, reemerging with a violent, breakneck intensity in the solo sections (yet, also unsurprisingly, Reid keeps the melodies coherent). Recorded for Steve Vai’s Favored Nations label, they’re as heady and conceptual as instrumental “guitar” records get.

When I ask Reid about the meaning of returning to fusion and the avant-garde after commercial triumph, he reiterates how, for someone pursuing a constantly shifting muse, it’s one and the same. “I just think of this as a journey I’m on. When I played JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, opening for the Rolling Stones, I’m thinking to myself, OK, so I’m here.

“And last night coming out onstage [with the Freqs]-OK … I’m here.”

Read Evan Haga’s interview with Iggy Pop on jazz. Originally Published

Evan Haga

Evan Haga worked as an editor and writer at JazzTimes from 2006 to 2018. He is currently the Jazz Curator at TIDAL, and his writing has appeared at, NPR MusicBillboard and other outlets.