Thursday, June 08, 2006

Riffing with Vernon Reid

Published: Thursday, June 8, 2006
By Brent Hallenbeck

The opening guitar notes to the 1988 Living Colour song "Cult of Personality" sliced through the air with an urgent slash that somehow managed to maintain an immaculate pop hook. The tune sent the band and its guitarist, Vernon Reid, on to a slot with the inaugural Lollapalooza tour and top-selling stardom.

Living Colour isn't quite dead -- Reid terms it "a project in deep flux right now" -- but the guitarist has turned his attention toward a rock-jazz hybrid. He'll play Friday during the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival with his current group, Masque, on a bill with the World Saxophone Quartet and its tribute to Jimi Hendrix.

In a recent phone conversation from his home in Staten Island, N.Y., Reid, 47, spoke about his jazz leanings, the significance of Hendrix, and why he enjoys the silence:
Q: Living Colour was a rock group, and what you're doing now with Masque is jazzier. Does one style of music fit your personality more than the other?

A: I think they're complimentary. You know, I really think of it as an inquiry into identity. That very question is the tension that gives it substance. I think of myself as more comfortable with the rock label, but jazz and improvisation, whether it's the blues or rock or jazz, is a part of it.

Q: How is the jazz-concert experience different from the rock-concert experience?

A: The only thing I'm hoping for is openness in an audience. I've had situations where rock audiences have been incredibly open and jazz audiences have been incredibly open, and I've been in situations where supposedly avant-garde audiences have been incredibly narrow and "alternative rock" audiences have been incredibly narrow. I think there's a danger if you don't really focus on what's being expressed, but you get caught up in the novelty or you're facing an audience that's sort of jaded or bitter. It can be really difficult. Audiences are mixed. Some people are looking for even the smallest authentic thing, and if they hear it, they're really happy. Once you hear it, you hear it. Jerry Garcia, one of the things he said is, "You are the music." The event of a concert is not just the people performing on stage.

Q: The jazzy instrumental version of Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence" on your new CD "Other True Self" sounds just as beautiful, in a completely different way, as the original. How did you settle on covering that?

A: My first real introduction to jazz was hearing (John) Coltrane's version of "My Favorite Things." The thing about popular music and jazz is oftentimes popular music was seen as a harmonic vehicle. The thing about "My Favorite Things" is Coltrane is very invested in the original lyric, and that's what really informs what he did with it. That impulse is the same sort of impulse with the Depeche Mode song. The lyrics of that song, aside from the melody and the chords, the lyrics of that song are just really phenomenal to me. That's really where it's coming from.

Q: Your guitar style has been compared to that of Jimi Hendrix. How did he influence you?

A: He's such a monumental and towering figure. He was a person that embodied the spirit of the times in the way The Beatles embodied the spirit of the times. He came at a radical point in American and world history. In the midst of the civil rights struggle, as an iconic figure, he was just a huge thing. As a musician, he completely altered the course of rock 'n' roll music. He really marked a template. Hendrix, (Eric) Clapton, Jeff Beck, you know, Jimmy Page, maybe to a lesser degree Robert Fripp, they really defined the figure of the guitarist in rock music. What he did, I can't even imagine how people made sense of it. The guitar is completely screaming, and he's controlling it in this kind of way to make music. It's really pretty unprecedented. He also was a real improviser. You listen to his versions of say, "Red House," they're just wildly different. The other thing he did is he, like Coltrane, did two pieces of music in particular that were iconic -- his version of "Machine Gun" with Band of Gypsys, and his version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" from Woodstock. It was one of the definitive versions of the anthem, and was a score for the country at the time. In the Vietnam War, the conflict was between the young and the old, the conflict between the races, it was all there. He was questioned about why it was so fierce. I just thought it was so beautiful.

Q: Did he influence jazz?

A: I think that he certainly influenced jazz, people like James Newton and Miles Davis. Miles just knew that this cat was bringing something that was just other and next. He was someone of great importance in 20th-century music and beyond. The only caveat I have is if somebody wanted to be Hendrix and dressed like him and played his things note for note, that's the reaction to someone so powerful and iconic. In a way that's not what he's telling us to do. His art is not telling us that. His art is screaming at everyone to find his thing. He found his thing and did his thing.

Contact Brent Hallenbeck at 660-1844 or If you go: The World Saxophone Quartet Plays Hendrix, with Vernon Reid and Masque, 8 p.m. Friday, Flynn Center, Burlington. $21-$37. 863-5966 or


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