Listening to Vernon Reid speak is like listening to Vernon Reid play the guitar: you need both ears and all your mind to keep up. Ideas flow eagerly, thoughts within thoughts ricochet off each other, quotations and questions are sprinkled in like sugar and spice, and it is almost overwhelming. In a good way.
Keeping up with Vernon Reid in conversation is like trying to keep track of his career: blink and you might miss something. Though best known for his work with Living Colour, Reid has been an indefatigable — and essential — presence in the avant-garde community, involved in projects ranging from jazz (the postmodern fusion of 1984’s Smash and Scatteration with fellow guitar hero Bill Frisell), electronic/illbient (the Yohimbe Brothers, with DJ Logic) and the crucial work he’s done under his own name (most recently, the easily recommended Other True Self from 2006, which features a remarkable interpretation of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”).
Knowing how far and wide Reid’s interests and abilities range, it makes all the sense in the world that he was drawn to his latest project, Spectrum Road. A contemporary super group, the quartet features Reid along with living legend Jack Bruce (Cream), keyboard virtuoso John Medeski (Medeski Martin & Wood) and Cindy Blackman Santana (Lenny Kravitz). By no means a tribute band, Spectrum Road is nevertheless in every sense of the word a tribute to the late and very great Tony Williams. Williams, of course, was the drumming wunderkind who cut his first tracks at age 16 with Jackie McLean before joining the seminal Miles Davis quintet during the mid-to-late ‘60s. He then embarked on a career that found him blazing trails that had literally not been discovered. His early-to-mid-‘70s albums with The Tony Williams Lifetime caused predictable confusion and consternation amongst the so-called jazz intelligentsia, but it introduced him to a young audience who could pick up what he was putting down (and had the added benefit of allowing newcomers to work backwards and follow the ingenious work he had been doing for a decade). A harder edged fusion, his concept attracted the accomplished and celebrated Jack Bruce, who stuck around for a couple of albums.
The music — and resultant album, which the band is touring behind this summer — is faithful to Williams’s vision. Arguably, the composer/drummer’s work was sufficiently advanced and unprecedented that some folks (such as the aforementioned critics, who could scarcely comprehend, much less appreciate Bitches Brew) are only now getting their heads around what he was up to. In hindsight, it seems easier to describe Lifetime’s catalog as an exercise in seamless genre swapping, which included straightforward jazz, fusion (when it was a dirty word but had not yet degenerated into the neutered expression it became) and what we now simply call world music. Naturally, it tended to be rejected at the time as too rock-oriented and/or “out there”. To complicate matters, Williams had the audacity to sing on several tracks, which proved to be the final straw even for more open-minded fans.
“Lifetime was crazy ahead of its time,” Reid says. “There is a special resonance for me personally. You have the jazz-rock on one hand, and the fusion of jazz where his roots were. But there was a lot of alt-rock in what Williams did.”
Take “Where”, a track which, like the other Lifetime compositions Spectrum Road covers, does not stray far from the originals but is rendered in the distinctive styles of these players. This twelve-plus minute tune has elements of multiple genres but is ultimately unclassifiable, in a class of its own. The yearning (and sparse) vocals, here delivered in a speak-sing seduction by Blackman Santana, are like a rush of wind just before an electrical storm. Extended and ethereal introductory notes give way to a frenzied jam, violent but never veering into chaos. It sounds like a super-amped extension of the Miles Davis In A Silent Way sessions, anticipating the more experimental prog-rock that was just around the corner.
Jack Bruce is the obvious bridge between generations, having played with Williams, but also an avatar of classic rock. In fact, Cream was arguably the first super group in rock, and after the ‘60s, virtually every project Bruce has worked in has, by default, been “super”. Or, as Reid puts it: “Jack Bruce is that guy. We are all in awe of him, but he is so open and, of course, he has been involved in music on so many levels for so many years…it’s just astounding.” Having played with both Bruce and Medeski (in different settings) during the last decade, it was up to Reid to bring these brilliant musicians together. The fourth –and perhaps most scrutinized– member is the one sitting in the proverbial hot seat, Cindy Blackman Santana. In addition to drumming for Lenny Kravitz, she has also displayed her ample chops playing jazz, including her own Tony Williams tribute, 2010’s Another Lifetime. “Here is this beautiful woman with a real ‘60s kind of look who is just killing it on the drums,” Reid says. “Tony was a huge influence on her, which is obvious in her playing and her whole approach.”
According to Reid, the connection these four players felt was the result of serendipity, a happy accident. “If this was focused on the so-called ‘glories of the past’ it would be dead on arrival. Since Tony’s expression is only now being fully understood, we can take that momentum and run with it. We are totally in the moment, so there is a great deal of improvisation.”
Seeing the band perform, which is a highly encouraged experience, is an awe-inspiring experience. One need not have ever watched Vernon Reid in action; all it requires is functioning ears to grasp how dynamic and busy (in a good way) his playing really is. But seeing him make all those sounds can be genuinely intoxicating. Watching him interact with Jack Bruce, laid back and flashing his Cheshire grin like a man truly enjoying himself, while trying to keep pace with Blackman Santana’s frenetic assault is a challenging, if rewarding proposition. And off to the side, calm and confident, is Medeski, busily building sounds like an eccentric architect.
What Spectrum Road is reflecting, and what Williams anticipated, is a world where information overload has become an unquestioned facet of existence. “We are in a culture that is somewhat insane,” Reid says. “No one can keep up with it; new trends are instantly passé.” At the same time, it’s a culture of conformity, or at least one where a certain sameness can provide security, if not success. “To carve out your own path as an artist, or even as a person, can be extraordinarily difficult… and there is resistance.”
Reid is talking about Williams, and the pushback he received, from critics, audiences and even fellow musicians (including, or especially the ones who respected him). Of course he could also be talking about himself. Reid, like so many of the best artists you read or hear speak, has seemingly listened to every album, read every book, seen every movie, and absorbed so many aspects of culture, both high and lowbrow. As a result, his style is inevitably an encyclopedia of sound: his influences and sources of inspiration are constantly alluded to even as he is busy inventing the future. In the course of a 90 minute conversation ostensibly focused on his current project, we also discussed names ranging from John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, Jimi Hendrix and Robert Fripp, Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, Prince Paul and Don Byron. He even made a point of insisting on a shout out to “Captain” Kirk Douglas (of The Roots), who in his opinion deserves more attention than he receives.
“This is really powerful and it’s not lost on any of us,” he says, explaining the mission of Spectrum Road. “These moments are measured, so we’re just loving the moment, loving that we finally got the opportunity to do this.” And the future? “There might be something with Medeski Martin & Wood upcoming, and of course Living Colour.” What else? “I’m still trying to learn the instrument, trying to find that individual voice. I always think of the great people who gave me advice or taught me how to think about things in a different way.”
This leads to a discussion of his aesthetic and philosophy, which are pretty much one and the same. “When a person means what they say they expose themselves,” he explains. “When a person is earnest he exposes naked humanity. Coltrane went all in. Hendrix was all in. There was no irony or calculation; this was their life, finding a unity of expression.” Once again he could be describing himself.