Q&A: Vernon Reid on His Fusion Supergroup, Spectrum Road

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When word got out earlier this year that Living Colour’s Vernon Reid and Cream’s Jack Bruce were premiering a new supergroup at Bonnaroo, fans of adventurous, blue-based rock must have been retreating to their man caves in excited anticipation. But that intrigue turned to curiosity (or downright bewilderment) when they learned that the band’s name, Spectrum Road, was a direct reference to the work of experimental jazz fusion drummer Tony Williams and his band Lifetime—not exactly a household name amongst guitar-rock purists.

The roots of the band actually stretch back some 40 years, when Bruce joined Lifetime after the dissolution of Cream. Just after 9/11, Reid found himself touring Europe with Bruce’s band the Cuicoland Express. “I asked him about Tony Williams because they were very close,” says Reid. “What he told me changed some of the misconceptions I’d had about the chronology of electric jazz, fusion or jazz/rock, if you will.”

The idea of a collaboration around Williams’ music wouldn’t quit, and in 2008, Reid and Bruce began jamming with organist John Medeski of jazzy jam band Medeski Martin & Wood and Cindy Blackman-Santana, the former drummer for Lenny Kravitz and wife of Carlos Santana. Their work finally came to fruition this year with the release of the Spectrum Road album—eight tracks originally performed by Williams’ band, along with an original blues and a traditional Scottish piece sung by Bruce.

We caught up with Reid during a three-night stand in Seattle last week.

Weeping Elvis: So I understand how you connected with Jack Bruce around the music of Tony Williams. But how did John Medeski and Cindy Blackman-Santana get involved?

Vernon Reid: I had known Cindy for a little while and we were friendly. And she had been playing of and on with Lenny Kravitz. We had crossed paths at festivals and crap like that. And John Medeski’s manager was the curator of the CBGB Gallery in New York and I was mounting a photo show there. And she was the curator for my photo show. …  [Medeski Martin & Wood] were playing and she said to come see them. The place was packed with these kids, to hear this organ trio! I thought this was really interesting. [Lifetime organist] Larry Young was going in such a different direction…I just thought that John was [also] doing something quirky and cool. It makes Spectrum Road have its own sonic signature, with his mellotron. Mellotron is not associated with jazz-rock music; it’s associated with prog rock music. The mellotron was this other animal, and it’s this factor that makes this record.

WE: While you’ve all played plenty of jazz, a lot of people still know you four best from the rock world. For someone approaching the disc or the show from that perspective, what’s the one thing you’d most like them to know about Tony Williams?

VR: I would want them to understand that that jazz-rock begins with his record Emergency! … that actual rock feeling started with Lifetime. Even before Miles Davis.

WE: It isn’t often that you see a project like this based around the work of a drummer.

VR: People think of the drummer as Ringo Starr, in the back. But this is something that Tony railed against. When Tony was doing this, drummers weren’t supposed to sing. And he got slagged for doing it. Listen to Kid A, then listen to There Comes a Time, and it reframes [Kid A]. He was so ahead of his time.

WE: Why do you say that this isn’t a tribute album?

VR: I would say it’s inspired by. We have three pieces that are not Lifetime songs. We take inspiration from Tony’s daring and from his vision. But we’re not recreating what Lifetime was.

WE: How does your approach to playing differ in a project like this? It must be quite challenging from a technical point of view, but do you need to get into a different headspace?

VR: It’s inevitable with everything that I’m doing, even though there are overlaps and similarities, I find myself fin a different mental space for each thing. I’m in a completely other head. I can’t play the way I would play with Living Colour. It would never occur to me. The feel wouldn’t be right. … The chemistry changes, even the rhythm with the other people changes where I am with it. Each thing is so encompassing, that I have to plug in totally.

WE: What’s your approach in developing a live set? I expect we’ll hear the whole record, but what else might you all play?

VR: It has been evolving. We’ve been bringing in one song by Cream actually [“Politician”], which is fun. And we kind of do it in a sideways style.  And we’re constantly throwing in grooves and improvising.

WE: What’s the state of jazz, in your mind. We keep hearing how it’s a dying art form, that it’s been relegated to a niche genre.

VR: We just lost the great Chuck Brown. They had an interview Chuck Brown on WFUV and it blew my mind. He said that all go-go music is based on the groove of [jazz classic] “Mr. Magic.” And if you go back and listen to the groove on Mr. Magic, it’s completely true. It’s amazing that this entire form of music can be born from this one piece. That’s the kind of thing that happens in a kind of communal aspect. [And] jazz needs its communities.

What’s happened to jazz is that it’s very difficult now. The economics are very difficult. With the band, we were talking about how you hear music is very different. I don’t think jazz is going to die, because are so many talented players, but what scene is there for them to be a part of? … Things like real estate impact culture. If you can get a room and a liquor license you can give it a go. If it’s prohibitively expensive, then it becomes allied with major corporations, then it becomes institutional, it’s kind of impersonal. And it’s kind of an intimate art form.

On the one hand, there’s the influential and necessary Jazz at Lincoln Center, but that tends to support one vision of what the music is. But it’s never been a uni-vision music. It’s all over the place.

Making oneself impregnable is the worst thing that can happen to the music. Who can play a ballad now? It’s all chops, chops chops. Who’s emotionally available for a song like “Strange Fruit”? The thing about Coltrane is people focus on his chops because he was a beast, but there was a reason why he played “My Favorite Things.” He played it because he had love. Without love it just becomes another gang.

Spectrum Road plays three dates in Canada this week, before heading to B.B. King’s Blues Club in New York on June 29 and the Howard Theatre in D.C. on June 30. Thanks to Vernon Reid for spending time with us.

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