Eight years have passed since Vernon Reid last put out a record under his own handle. In that time, Reid has added his guitar to numerous recordings by other artists, and he also successfully resurrected Living Colour with his bandmates for a new album (last year's CollideOscope) and tour. But just released the new Known Unknown, recorded with his Masque band -- keyboard whiz Leon Gruenbaum, bassist Hank Schroy and drummer Marlon Browden -- marking only the second time Reid has put his name on top of an album that tips its hat to his jazz roots.
Reid calls the band "an outgrowth" of the group that recorded his other foray as leader of a jazz session, Mistaken Identity, in 1996. Like that recording, Known Unknown finds Reid relishing the opportunity to smear genres together and create new sounds that meddle with tradition but in an inclusive, rather than divisive manner. Known Unknown's sense of variety could be due in part to its sessions, which were strung out over years, as Reid and his cohorts entered the studio when their respective schedules allowed. "We were stealing away time whenever we could," Reid says. "We'd tour a bit and go into the studio and break apart and then get back together. But the feeling the band generates is really organic and warm . . . and very weird too [laughs]. They're very good at surprising me."
Among the inspired surprises is a eye-popping reinvention of Thelonious Monk's "Brilliant Corners" into an urgent rave-up. "It's very reverent and irreverent at the same time," says Reid. "Monk was such an iconoclast, so unique. He was an incredible composer and pianist, but also this odd unique figure. That oddness, that quirkiness is something to celebrate, and that's what we tried to do. To get some of that strong Sixties rhythm and blues jazz thing, that great sound that came before the rock jazz fusion."
Another cut, "Flatbush and Church," is a tribute to a cross street in a largely Caribbean neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, where Reid grew up after moving to the States from London. "That's a tribute to the Brooklyn diaspora," he says. "So much of Brooklyn is fascinating. You can go down Church Avenue and you really are in another country. Brooklyn's been under the radar for a long time, but those streets, Flatbush and Church and Eastern Parkway and Nostrand Avenue, they formed me in a lot of ways."
Much of Reid's jazz training was from a more esoteric avant garde bent, but Known Unknown manages to fuse a difficult style with a universal sense of melody. Reid credits hearing John Coltrane's version of the musical classic "My Favorite Things" with always keeping him focused on the melody itself, particularly on cuts like the playful "Outskirts." "A jazz teacher in high school played that for me," he says. "And I remember going on a class trip years before to Radio City to see The Sound of Music. The feeling of that song the way Coltrane played it related to the way Julie Andrews did it, but it was coming from a different place. I'm attracted to those simple melodies, they're my favorite things in jazz."
With Living Colour's touring jag done for the time being, Reid will now take Known Unknown out for some dates in the States and Europe. "I just want to beat the drum," he says. "I hope people will take it to heart, because that's how it was delivered. It was a product of a great deal of affection between the players. A real feeling for the pieces of music and a desire to push the envelope too, but in a gentle way, not this kind of outside bad motherfuckerism. So many of my heroes, their egos blew it up; you have to remember that no musician is bigger than the music. The music should play the musicians. The key is getting out of its way."
(May 12, 2004)
Chicago Sun Times review of Known Unknown
VERNON REID & MASQUE, "KNOWN UNKNOWN" (FAVORED NATIONS)
Through his work with Living Colour, James "Blood" Ulmer and Jack Bruce, Vernon Reid has earned a reputation as a premier rock guitarist. But the founding member of the Black Rock Coalition is a jazz freak as well, and this instrumental CD with Masque scratches that itch.
Reid is a flamethrower of a jazz-rock guitarist in the John McLaughlin mold, as he quickly establishes on the opening title track. But he's also among the most versatile of axmen, working under a broad stylistic umbrella that also includes fusion, funk, acid and modal jazz, surf and metal music. Despite his technical mastery, he resists the temptation to overplay.
Still, "Known Unknown" is a genre-hopping minor masterpiece rather than Reid's definitive artistic statement. He still seems to be casting about for his true musical calling.