Many Colors of Vernon Reid
Guitarist who changed rock moves on to jazz, fusion and fresh faces
By JEFF MIERS
News Pop Music Critic
As guitarist with Living Colour, Vernon Reid created a musical revolution that predated the early 90s grunge explosion. Though Reid's contributions were eclipsed in the commercial sense by the ascendancy of artists like Nirvana and Soundgarden, his work has far broader implications than does grunge's inspired but ultimately self-reflective updating of early '70s heavy metal.
Reid, in fact, had tapped into a deeper zeitgeist, one that encompassed the human cry of the African-American experience related in the work of such artists as Robert Johnson, Skip James, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman. And he did it all while playing a form of music that was essentially hard rock.
Living Colour's mass popularity peaked, sadly, with its riveting debut effort, "Vivid," a record that crossed genres well before rap-metal reared its ugly head. Arriving fully formed, Reid's guitar work was from the beginning sophisticated and primal, a jarring blend of agonized flurries of gloriously distorted notes and elegant melodic passages that went well over the heads of many commercial rock listeners.
It was clear from the beginning - just listen again to the skittish, modal riff around which Living Colour's hit "Cult of Personality" revolves - that Reid was up to something different.
Journalist/author/musician Greg Tate, with whom Reid formed the Black Rock Coalition, an aggregate of musicians, industry folks and journalists, some 20 years ago, spoke of the reason behind both his partnership with Reid and the pair's view of the dilemma facing modern African-American music.
"If you can't really know the context that all of this music evolved from in its own time, then maybe you are going to be a little alienated, a little ignorant, maybe even a bit nonresponsive to what that music is saying," Tate told a Toronto journalist.
Throughout his career, Reid has been anything but nonresponsive to what the music is saying. Though Living Colour split in the mid-'90s and Reid dove headlong into a variety of solo projects in various idioms, from fusion to avant garde, Reid never lost the plot. His playing retained a searing, soaring spirituality throughout.
When Living Colour re-formed last year to record the striking "Collideoscope" and commence touring - a jaunt that included a rain-soaked but transcendent appearance as part of last summer's Thursday at the Square - Reid was clearly focused. He reclaimed a sound that many - from Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello to less adventurous rap-metal guitarists - had borrowed from him.
Now Reid returns with another project outside the Living Colour family, this time a collaboration with Masque, a group of some of New York City's finest underground musicians in the jazz, avant garde and rock worlds. The album, the aptly titled "Known Unknown," offers a dizzying instrumental tour through Reid's fertile imagination and the collective intensity of his cohorts.
It's hard to name another rock guitarist who is able to draw from a palette as broad as the one Reid employs. There's an unmistakable heaviness to "Known Unknown," but it is underscored by influences ranging from Jeff Beck, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Hendrix to Santana, James Blood Ulmer, electric Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman. "Bitches Brew"-like improvisational meltdowns like "Down and Out in Kigali and Freetown" sit comfortably snug against the Dick Dale-does-modal jazz romp "The Outskirts."
Reid and his players - keyboardist Leon Gruebaum, bassist Hank Schroy, drummer Marlon Browden, guest DJ Logic - also reharmonize and reconfigure a pair of jazz tunes (what Reid calls "fractured standards") in the form of Thelonius Monk's "Brilliant Corners" and Lee Morgan's "Sidewinder," both of which find Reid offering dizzying juxtapositions of harmonic fury and fluid, emotional release.
"I think of Masque as a component part of my life's expression," Reid has said. It's easy to see why. Like Reid's life, which has seen him challenge stereotypes and buck the system, so does "Known Unknown" push the envelope of our standard notions of black and white, harmony and discord, beauty and ugliness.•
Reid and Masque perform at 7 tonight in Club Infinity, 8166 Main St., Williamsville. Tickets are $17 (box office, Tickets.com). Call 565-0110.
For guitarist Reid, some things don't change
Guitarist Vernon Reid is staging his own revival.
A few years ago, Living Colour, the groundbreaking hard rock group that peaked in the late '80s and early '90s, played a few reunion gigs at CBGB, and that led to a tour and a comeback CD, "CollideOscope" (Sanctuary). Now Reid has just released "Known Unknown" (Favored Nations), the first disc in eight years by his instrumental project, Masque. And Masque is on tour; tomorrow night, they will play at Joe's Pub, 425 Lafayette St. In addition to that, Reid is working with DJ Logic on the next Yohimbe Brothers recording as well as working a few film and dance scores.
In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same. For years in the '80s and '90s, it seemed you couldn't walk three blocks without stumbling onto some Reid project. He had jazz projects, world music collaborations, electronica endeavors, and it seemed he was always involved in some hip tribute being organized for Prince, Joni Mitchell or someone. In addition, The Black Rock Coalition, an organization that Reid co-founded in 1985 to address institutional racism in the music industry, was always holding some sort of showcase or panel that might involve him. But after Masque's 1996 disc "Mistaken Identity," the recording activity slowed down markedly. But Reid evidently kept the same furious pace, working on scores for dance companies and films. Inspired by Bernard Hermann's score to the science fiction classic, "The Day the Earth Stood Still," Reid began working with filmmakers and has scored a series of independent films by Thomas Allen Harris as well as "Mr. 3000," the upcoming Bernie Mac baseball movie.
Reid said the new Masque CD concerns many of the same issues he addressed on the first one eight years ago. "It's an instrumental investigation into identity," he said alliteratively by phone from Boston, where Masque played last week. "In some ways it's about the idea of the idea of Africa, and how that gets twisted in translation." While the subject matter is a tad heavy, the music is actually somewhat breezy, filled with sterling guitar work, superb drumming from newcomer Marlon Browden as well as stellar play from bassist Hank Schroy and keyboardist Leon Gruenbaum. The music ranges all over the map from the crunchy "Flatbush and Church" to a cover of Lee Morgan's finger-poppin' jazz anthem "The Sidewinder."
(Shows are at 7:30 and 9:30, tickets are $23 and available via Tele-charge at 212-239-6200.)
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