Monday, February 20, 2006

Behind the masks

Vernon Reid's music defies easy categorization

By Darrell Jónsson
For The Prague Post
February 15, 2006

Vernon Reid knows how to cure any notion of solo jazz guitar sounding lame: grab the axe by the neck, dip it in a heavy-metal bitches' brew, take it on a power-chord hip-hop trip around the third stone from the sun and bring it back to earth with a few long, cello-like sustained notes. Other aspects of Vernon Reid & Masque's sound are not impossible to describe, but they're not simple.

"Usually [in music] you are in one bag or another," says Reid, speaking to The Prague Post last week from his hotel in Munich. "If you're doing a sort of a jazz-pop thing, then all your melodies are accessible and easy to take and everything is a medium tempo. Or if you're trying to prove to everyone you can play really fast — tadatadata! Or perhaps you are a prog [rock] guy, and everything is going to be obscure and really not as tuneful. I just refuse those bags. I just let the music move me and the band, and we take it wherever we're going."

The "wherever" that Reid & Masque explore includes a challenging juxtaposition of musical forms. It's no wonder that Reid admires the Surrealists, who he says were "flipping the rules ... and using language and art to do it."

Flipping musical rules and genres comes naturally to Reid, who had an equally diversified upbringing: Born in London to Caribbean parents, he was raised in New York City. In the early '80s, Reid co-founded the Black Rock Coalition to present and encourage convention-defying black artists. He extended that goal with his genre-bending, perception-challenging group Living Colour, which had numerous Billboard-charting hits and won two Grammy awards. In his ongoing solo career, Reid has worked with Carlos Santana, Jack Bruce and James Blood Ulmer, and landed himself (a debatably underrated) 66th place in Rolling Stone's list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.

Vernon Reid & Masque's recent release Other True Self, on Stevie Vai's Favored Nations label, continues a theme that Reid started back in the '80s. "With Living Colour, even the name implies an identity thing," he says. "Masque is almost [the identity concept] flipped around — I'm examining whethe or not identity can be a trap. There is a thin line between racial pride, and then chauvinism and prejudice. I'm not ashamed of where I'm from; I'm very proud of it. But I also know it can be used to separate me from people and can be used to separate me from love of all different types. That really is where Masque is coming from."

With Masque's current work, Reid continues to take bold steps across the fusion and fissures of rock, hip-hop, blues and free-form while also referencing ambient, West African and Caribbean styles. On Masque's 2005 release, Known Unknown, there's a punk spin on Thelonius Monk's "Brilliant Corners" as well as a new read on Lee Morgan's "Sidewinder." Masque's latest release and live sets include Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence," Tony Williams' "Wild Life" and Radiohead's "National Anthem." These, along with Masque originals like "Game is Rigged," "White Face" and "Overcoming," carry musical ideas that Reid says "relate to where we live now."

The music of Vernon Reid & Masque is definitely not easy listening, but the experience is ultimately fun and certainly interesting. At the Akropolis show, rock, blues, jazz and heavy metal fans can all expect a few intense moments as Reid and crew put on and strip off their musical masks.

Darrell Jónsson can be reached at

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