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Inspired by Jimi Hendrix, Ronald Shannon Jackson and other adventurous players, a guitar superhero continues his sonic excursions into the cosmos. In the same way that Jimi Hendrix transcended his instrument — going well beyond the notes on such pivotal, performative pieces as “Machine Gun” and his version of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock — Vernon Reid too has been searching for that place beyond the limitations of the fretboard. And while he has been a phenomenal technician on the instrument, a speed-picker of the highest order, his dedication to sound itself over the past 40-plus years continues to fuel his questfor six-string transcendence.
Of course, in this digital/MIDI age of guitar synthesis, Reid has many more tools in his arsenal than Hendrix ever had access to. Just imagine what Electric Ladyland might’ve sounded likeif Jimi were equipped with a Line 6 Helix Multi-Effects Processor, a Fishman TriplePlay Wireless MIDI Guitar Controller or Roland GR-700 guitar synthesizer — even though Hendrix’s studio excursions on that game-changing album, in effect, paved the way for those gadgets.
Reid, 64, continues his sonic mission with Free Form Funky Freqs, the genre-exploding power trio he formed 15 years ago with bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and drummer Calvin Weston. Their latest recording, Hymn of the 3rd Galaxy (Ropeadope), done remotely during the COVID pandemic, finds the intrepid guitarist pushing the envelope just about as far as he ever has, particularly on such outré instrumental offerings as “Near Arm,” “Perseus Arm,” “Orion Spur” and “Sun,” where he adeptly combines dazzling chops, ambient washes and layer upon layer of interlocking lines, all done courtesy of a live looping device.
Back when I first started seeing Reid play around New York — first at a Fourth of July concert at the South Street Seaport Museum in 1982 with Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society, then later that year as part of John Zorn’s Track & Field at the Public Theater, and in a January 19, 1983, concert with Decoding Society at the Bottom Line on a split bill with James “Blood” Ulmer — he had very few devices at his disposal, though he was beginning to work the Roland GR-300 guitar synth into the mix with Shannon. But beyond the gear, Reid always possessed that potent combination of frenetic chops, wild imagination and sheer abandon — influenced by such sonic explorers as Hendrix and Sonny Sharrock — to take things all the way out at any given moment. And he has continued to exhibit that kind of visionary approach to the guitar ever since, as evidenced by his playing on Hymn of the 3rd Galaxy.
Reid started off a recent phone conversation from his home in Staten Island, New York, by paying tribute to his former employer and mentor, the late innovative drummer-composer-bandleader Ronald Shannon Jackson, who passed away in 2013. It’s hard for me to comprehend that the groundbreaking Decoding Society album, Mandance, was 40 years ago. Yeah, it’s crazy. Being in Decoding Society was an amazing journey. I think Mandance, Barbecue Dog and Decode Yourself were all classics. And I don’t think Shannon ever got the full dap as a composer. When I go back and listen to those records, I’m amazed at the depth of his writing. He had a real gift and he was an incredibly prolific composer. I know that [saxophonist] Eric Person continues to play Shannon’s music. I’ve done it myself in the Zig Zag Power Trio with Melvin Gibbs and Will Calhoun [they cover Shannon’s “Street Priest” and “Eastern Voices Western Dreams” on 2018’s Woodstock Sessions, Vol. 9]. Shannon was wild, man. One part of him was incredibly hard-edged, but he was also incredibly sentimental. And to me, whenever I hear “Iola” [from Mandance], that’s like the sound of his boyhood in Texas. I think of that as so much of the best parts of him being a kid. It’s a lovely piece of music, and still very affecting.
Another affecting tune on Mandance was “When Souls Speak,” which is like Shannon’s answer to Ornette’s “Lonely Woman.” Yes, and the fact that he and Ornette shared that Fort Worth, Texas, background meant something. I mean, you don’t really get Ornette unless you connect the dots. On the one hand, there’s this kind of super esoteric, intellectual thing, but there’s also a real Lightnin’ Hopkins-type Texas blues thing in there, as well. And that’s true of Shannon, too. He had this kind of split between Eastern mysticism, blues authenticity and a kind of harmolodic, psychedelic, ex-junkie mayhem. And he had those things in a kind of balance.
“Orion Spur” from Hymn of the 3rd Galaxy carries a bit of Shannon’s influence. Absolutely, I have no doubt. Shannon was a big imprinting experience for me. It’s kind of like all the people that played with Miles: Their first record they did away from Miles had the imprint of Bitches Brew and Live Evil. The first Weather Report records had it and they broke away eventually. Herbie Hancock’s Sextant had a Miles vibe too, and then he broke away from it. So my first playing live after Shannon, he was still in my head a great deal. But I love what Shannon brought to music as a composer. That stuff is swimming around somewhere in me, for sure.
Regarding your own signature approach to guitar, where that’s coming from? It’s from the sounds that had a huge effect on me coming up. There’s this place where what Hendrix was doing, what Pharoah Sanders was doing, what John Coltrane was doing, what Eric Dolphy was doing, what Rahsaan Roland Kirk was doing all come together. It’s that whole idea of transcendence via sound. In Hendrix’s time, he discovered that the guitar became a different animal above a certain volume and he was able to control and utilize noise and then morph from noise to melody. It was really unprecedented what he did in terms of sound. These are things that really influenced me. And then the guitarists who occupied those spaces — John McLaughlin did it. Sonny Sharrock certainly did it. Robert Fripp, even as controlling as he is, he did it. Bill Connors on [Weather Report’s] Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy record did it. Jan Akkerman did it, David Torn did it, so did James “Blood” Ulmer, Tisziji Muñoz and, of course, Carlos Santana. They all were able to occupy a transcendent space, and that’s the kind of aspiration that I developed from hearing all of those cats. It’s something that I’ve felt a calling towards and have been able to do in my own voice and my own way.
Another transcendent guitarist from your own past is Arthur Rhames. Absolutely. Me and Melvin Gibbs and other aspiring musicians from the neighborhood in Brooklyn where I grew up saw Arthur play all the time. The thing was, the true guitar stars were unapproachable, they were in the firmament. They were kind of demigods who only existed on record. And then to have somebody in my neighborhood who was at that same level as those demigods and even transcended that level … I mean, he was just mesmerizing to hear. And then the fact that he was not only an incredible guitarist but also an incredible saxophonist and incredible pianist — he really remains in a singular space in music. When I first heard him, he sounded like sped-up Johnny Winter, then he’d play like John McLaughlin and he could reference to Hendrix. But I remember seeing him play at Medgar Evers College when he started doing playing this kind of 12-tone, seriously avant-garde thing … that was something else! It was this kind of linear mosaic approach that Allan Holdsworth was doing, but this was a guy from the neighborhood, you know? He was just astonishing and, in his own way, incredibly daunting. But he always was telling me, “Vernon, just keep practicing, one fret after another.” He was very encouraging to me early on. The great tragedy of Arthur was that people didn’t know what to do with him. There wasn’t somebody on the record producing side that could take in the totality of who Arthur Rhames was. But I think he scared people off because he was so uncompromising and his intensity was otherworldly. He needed a Teo Macero in his corner. There needed to be somebody that heard him and really got how extraordinary he was and basically built a situation around him. But that person just did not show up for Arthur.
There are moments on Hymn of the 3rd Galaxy where you definitely reach that transcendent place yourself. Well, this new record represents the 73rd musical outing of Free Form Funky Freqs, and it was a super challenge because it was recorded during lockdown. There are three studio records that we’ve done so far. I produced the first one, Urban Mythology, Jamaaladeen produced the second one, Bon Vivant, and Calvin Weston produced this latest one. All of the tunes on the record are named for celestial bodies and celestial areas, and that kind of defined the album because Calvin had that idea from the top. And the interesting thing is, there are no overdubs or second takes on this recording. Everything you’re hearing — all these guitars, all the synthesizer-type sounds, the clean guitar and the atmospheric sounds — that’s all happening in real time. There’s no overdubs, no second takes.
We do sound checks in pairs, we’ve never done a soundcheck where the three of us played together. So we’re only going to do what we’re doing when we’re actually performing in front of an audience. And it’s the same thing when we make the records. So there are no overdubs on any of the Free Form Funky Freqs records. No overdubs, no done-over tracks, no punch-ins. In approaching this new record, Calvin did his drum parts alone and then he sent his beats and things to Jamaaladeen, who played on top and played through the pieces. And then I added all of these incredibly dense, parallel effects using the Fishman TriplePlay system, the Roland guitar synth, doing all kinds of audio synthesis and guitar through my pedalboard and on computer. And so it was incredibly nerve-wracking for me, because when I hit record, whatever happened next is what you got. Because it was important to me to be in integrity with the ethos of what the Free Form Funky Freqs is all about. And the funny thing is, nobody’s really going to know if I did overdub or did a second take, right? But I would know. And it was so important to me to have that burden of doing exactly what we set out to do. So everything is a first take on this record and there are no overdubs. There’s lots of live looping but I’m doing that in real time. And I’ve got a bunch of different volume and expression pedals that allow me to bring things in and out of the mix at will.
So, for example, on “Norma Arm” it sounds like there are a lot of layered guitars. It reminded me of Hendrix’s “Night Bird Flying” (from Cry of Love), where he layers on a bunch of guitars near the end of the track and it peaks with this very thick layer of interlocking parts. Yeah, it’s all happening at one time. And things can change up radically from moment to moment. Like on “Earth,” it starts off like a little bit of a Grant Green-ish kind of vibe, where the guitar is clean and warm-sounding, and then it becomes this ambient thing with synth washes. And that’s because of what Calvin laid down and what Jamaaladeen came up with. And it took a bit of meditation and centering myself before I was ready to do my part. And again, I was determined to not cheat.
By cheat, you mean overdub? Meaning no second takes or turning around and fixing something. I didn’t want to fail at the task, because you can get into that thing of, “I want to do the perfect this or the perfect that. I want to do it over and over again.” And so, I really had to center myself and let go of my anxieties and kind of say, “OK, it is what it is.” And I actually am really happy with the end result. And there are bits where Jamaaladeen and I do unison lines, without even thinking about it. You just kind of go for it. You mentioned that the new FFFF album is your 73rd musical encounter. What was your first? We’ve been doing these things for a long time now. It started at Tonic, a spot in New York that I miss. Melissa [Caruso Scott] and John [Zorn] started that great nightclub in 1998. Right before it closed in 2007, Calvin booked a gig there and then made the phone call to me and said, “Hey, man, I’ve got this thing. Want to come and play?” And I thought, “Sure. We’ll get to soundcheck and then we’ll figure out what we’re going to do.”
So we got to Tonic but Jamaaladeen wasn’t there, and people were filling the room, so me and Calvin just started to play. Finally, Jamaaladeen showed up and we all started playing together, and it went really well. Then, later on, I got another call from Jamaaladeen saying, “Come down to this club in Philly.” So we did it again. Again, the place was packed and Jamaaladeen walked in five minutes before the downbeat, plugged in and we just went for it.
The three of us had never played together before. I played on Jamaaladeen’s record Renaissance Man [Gramavision, 1984], but Tonic was the first time we ever played together. The Tritone in Philly was the second time, and our third time was our first studio recording we made in the summer of 2007 called Urban Mythology Volume One [Thirsty Ear], which I produced. Our second album, Bon Vivant [Jam-All Productions, 2013] was our 15th or 16th time playing together. And each time we did it just spontaneously. Then we went on tour, did a bunch of dates and we did the exact same thing, just improvised on the gig. Now this new record, Hymn of the Third Galaxy, is literally the 73rd time that we’ve ever engaged in playing music together. The next performance of Free Form Funky Freqs — and I don’t know when or where that will happen — will be number 74. And it’s my firm hope to get to 100.
You mentioned that Hendrix really liberated things for guitar players like yourself. How so? First of all, he helped popularize the wah-wah pedal. Once upon a time, the wah-wah pedal was considered an outrage. Traditional blues people were absolutely scandalized by the use of wah-wah pedal, and then it got adopted into the fabric of music, thanks to Hendrix. And he also introduced the idea of backwards guitar on “Are You Experienced?” And it was a whole process where you had to turn the tape over to get that backwards effect. What’s amazing to consider, when you think about Jimi’s solo on that tune, is that he’s playing a forward guitar solo and he’s thinking about how it’s going to sound when the tape is turned over to get that backwards effect. That’s incredibly visionary. Now there are pedals that allow you to do backwards guitar instantly.
Of course, pedals are not for everyone. If it’s not for you, don’t do it. But if pedals are part of your language, there’s nothing to apologize for. That’s how Hendrix kind of liberated the guitar. He championed the idea that any noise that the guitar makes is also a legitimate part of the guitar’s expression. That’s why “Machine Gun” is the harrowing experience that it is. First time I heard “Machine Gun,” I had turned off the lights and I was in the basement at my parents’ house, and I scared myself to death. It freaked me totally out. I mean, there have been guitar solos over time that are displays of extraordinary prowess. Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption” is an extraordinary piece, for instance. But “Machine Gun” and “The Star Spangled Banner” are literally the real-time soundtrack of what people were going through at the time, filtered through the sound of the guitar. No one else has done that! People have played some incredible things on the guitar, but “Machine Gun” puts you in a rice paddy in Vietnam. “Machine Gun” forced you to think about what soldiers were going through at that time. At the time Jimi was playing “Machine Gun" in real time at the Fillmore, there were people walking in point [combat military formation], experiencing exactly what he was playing. Now, that may happen again some day, but it hasn’t happened yet.
You recently posted a clip on Facebook of Living Colour playing at the Rock in Rio festival on September 3 with guitarist Steve Vai as a special guest. What was that about? Steve’s been wonderful to me through the years. We met actually in 1994, when Hendrix got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and we’ve just been friends ever since. [Reid’s two Masque albums, 2004’s Known Unknown and 2006’s Other True Self, were both released on Vai’s Favored Nations label]. We also jammed together on “Foxey Lady” at the Experience Hendrix tour from 2011. He’s an extraordinary, iconic guitarist and a friend, so it was just lovely to play with him in Rio. He’s someone I have a great deal of personal affection for and a huge amount of respect for. As a guitar player, he’s just ridonkulous!
Your finale at that Rock in Rio concert was “Cult of Personality,” which originally appeared on Living Colour’s 1988 debut album, Vivid. That tune from over 30 years ago was kind of prescient for what’s going on now with the whole Trump MAGA Nation thing. Oh, my God! I wish I had a nickel for every time they talked about that tune in relation to Trump or just said the phrase ‘cult of personality.’ I could add another wing to the house.
Any closing thoughts about your late pal, the great music journalist Greg Tate? Oh, man, I’ve been grappling with his passing all year. December 7th will be the one-year anniversary of his passing. It’s unbelievable to me that Tate is gone. But life goes on in spite of the unbelievable, in spite of the incredible, in spite of the appalling. If we’re not the victims of the appalling moment, we go on.
We were close friends; we were also intellectual sparring partners. I remember when a bunch of people got together at Linda Goode Bryant’s gallery [Just Above Midtown at 50 W. 57th Street] to talk about the music business and racism and all this stuff, and Greg said, “Well, what are we going to do about it?” And shortly thereafter, he wrote the manifesto for the Black Rock Coalition. We had so many wonderful moments of friendship and camaraderie and cultural engagement. So I’d have to say that his passing, for me, was a catastrophe. But we’ve also endured the catastrophe of losing Jean-Michel Basquiat, Pete Cosey, Sonny Sharrock, Ronnie Drayton, Ornette Coleman, Butch Morris, Prince. And the person I would always talk to about all of these passings is Greg Tate. And really, the person who I would call and talk to about the death of Greg Tate is Greg Tate. That’s about as profound as it can be. - Bill Milkowski Featured photos by Sound Evidence.