Free Form Funky Frëqs: Urban Mythology Volume One

[13 February 2008]

By Stuart Henderson

PopMatters Features Editor

On Free Form Funky Frëqs’ third performance ever, this upstart fusion trio hit RECORD and laid it all down. The result, Urban Mythology Volume One, is surprisingly even. Although the band members didn’t know each other yet, or at least not well enough to call this record much more than a session, their performance is fairly tight, and the music is, sort of, good.

The Frëqs are comprised of Vernon Reid (founder of Living Colour(!)), and Philadelphia-based free jazz heroes Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Calvin Westin on bass and drums, respectively. Their approach mingles the heavy with the funky – folks who spun Vivid over and over again back in 1989 will have a sense of what this means – while dipping into some downtown experimental jazz sounds à la Groundthunder. However, unlike their ostensible contemporaries, the Frëqs’ tunes track between pedal-driven atmosphere and high-speed pyrotechnics, leaving little room for sparkle or wit. The result is a bit lugubrious: like a humourless blues record, the darkness seems to trump the groovy.

This is the kind of jam-based jazz that really divides listeners. While some will hear in Vernon Reid’s lengthy soloing the re-emergence of a guitar hero, others will hear just about exactly what they dislike about the genre. It is often said that this kind of jamband stuff smacks of laziness, with just-give-me-something-to-solo-over arrangements, the refusal of rehearsals, etc. Indeed, the lack of distinct interplay between musicians, coupled with the hyper-dominant electric guitar, suggests a kind of vanity project for Reid. While his rhythm section plays fairly straight accompaniment, staying at home more than they should in a “free form” trio like this, Reid rides up and down the fretboard like Steve Vai on amphetamines.

Notice how I didn’t say Grant Green. The Free Form Funky Frëqs (or, at least, Vernon Reid) take musical cues from heavy metal – and ‘80s-era heavy metal at that. This is no doubt fascinating when experienced live (for a little while). But, on record, the result is less than riveting. The guitar tones are too strident, too electric, and melody seems supplanted by all this noisy energy.

I wonder if this is the reason that Reid’s former band, so dominant while they were around, has weathered worse than A Flock of Seagulls? Apart from Chuck Klosterman, has anyone actually listened to Living Colour since 1991? The cacophony, the searing violence of Reid’s aesthetic approach just leaves one a bit cold. His fingers move like lightning, but I guess his music just doesn’t move me. Unfortunately, this holds true on Free Form Funky Frëqs’ Urban Mythology Volume One.

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