Vernon Reid

Burning Ambulance Podcast

23-08-2022 • 1 hr 9 mins

I have said two things all season long. The first is that we’re going to be exploring a single topic for ten episodes, and that topic is fusion. But the second thing I’ve been saying is that what I’m talking about when I say the word fusion isn’t a style or a genre, but a state of mind. It’s not what you play, it’s how you approach music-making.

In previous episodes, we’ve talked about what people typically think of as fusion, which drummer Lenny White, who appeared in episode two of this series, prefers to call jazz-rock. That’s the version that more or less starts with Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew and Tony Williams’ Lifetime and branches out to include Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return To Forever and Weather Report. But my version of that continuum also includes early Seventies Santana, it includes the Fania All Stars collaborating with Jan Hammer and Billy Cobham, it includes adventurous funk and R&B fusion, like P-Funk and Earth, Wind & Fire and the Ohio Players and Slave, and it includes jazz-funk acts like Donald Byrd and Freddie Hubbard and George Duke.

Vernon Reid is a guitarist who was born in England but grew up in New York. He’s best known as the leader of Living Colour, and one of the co-founders of the Black Rock Coalition along with the late writer Greg Tate, but he’s got a long and varied discography that encompasses solo material, duo and trio work with other guitarists like Bill Frisell, David Torn and Elliot Sharp, and guest appearances with a ton of groups from Public Enemy to the Rollins Band, Mick Jagger, Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, Santana, and many, many more. His solo album Mistaken Identity from 1996 is the only album to carry co-producer credits from Prince Paul and Teo Macero. Back in 2012, he made an album with a group called Spectrum Road which featured John Medeski on keyboards, Jack Bruce on bass, and Cindy Blackman Santana on drums — it was conceptually a tribute to Tony Williams Lifetime, but it’s very much its own thing as well, so definitely check that out.

Reid got his start, though, with drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson’s band the Decoding Society. He played guitar, banjo, and guitar synth with that group, which had two bassists: Melvin Gibbs, who was on this podcast a couple of years ago, and Reverend Bruce Johnson, and then some horn players, mostly Zane Massey on saxophones and Henry Scott on trumpet. It’s high-energy music that’s also really melodic in a kind of post-Prime Time way — jazz, funk, rock, Texas blues and West African music all swirled together and thrown straight at your face at a hundred miles an hour. Their albums Nasty, Street Priest, Mandance, Barbeque Dog, Montreux Jazz Festival and Earned Dreams are all incredible. They’re all out of print right now, too, but some of them are on streaming services, so dig up whatever you can.

Reid has a new record out with the group Free Form Funky Freqs, a trio with bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, who’s also been on this podcast before, and drummer Calvin Weston, and as he explains in this conversation, it’s full-on improv, starting from zero every time they play together, and because it’s so limited – no rehearsals, no soundchecks with all three members – they know exactly how many times they’ve played together. The album represents their 73rd encounter. It’s called Hymn Of The 3rd Galaxy, sort of a tribute to Return To Forever there, who had an album called Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy, and you’ll hear a little bit of the music late in the podcast.

I think you’ll really enjoy this episode. I’ve been a fan of Vernon Reid’s music for about 35 years. The first Living Colour album came out when I was in high school, and I saw them play on the first Lollapalooza festival in the summer of 1991. And I interviewed him once before, about 10 years ago, when he was doing a multimedia presentation called Artificial Africa. So in this conversation, we talk about his work with the Decoding Society, about the Free Form Funky Freqs, about the whole wave of guitarists who came up at the same time he did, including Michael Gregory Jackson and Kelvyn Bell and Jean-Paul Bourelly and Brandon Ross, as well as older players like James "Blood" Ulmer and Pete Cosey and Sonny Sharrock… we talk about a lot of things, and I’m just gonna end this introduction here, so you can dive in.


Living Colour, “WTFF” (from Stain)

Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society, “Iola” (from Mandance)

Vernon Reid & Bill Frisell, “Size 10 1/2 Sneaks” (from Smash & Scatteration)

Free Form Funky Freqs, “Outer Arm” (from Hymn of the 3rd Galaxy)