IMG_2052Guitarist Vernon Reid clarified one thing at the beginning of the night’s set: he wanted the group everyone was about to experience to be known as WMV: the first initials of the members’ names, rather than the “Vernon Reid Power Trio” that had drawn people to the Iridium. This decision was in deference to a more egalitarian vision of the collaboration between three longtime friends and musical accomplices. Or, he said, you could call them the Zig Zag Power Trio.

The name may have to be settled later on, but all of that seemed less important than the music, which certainly is starting to gel between Reid, drummer/percussionist Will Calhoun, and electric bassist Melvin Gibbs in their raucous, high-energy ensemble.

I reviewed their last appearance at Iridium back in the spring, and was impressed enough to be eagerly anticipating a return appearance–which Reid promised was forthcoming – and finally happened last Friday for two sets.

The trio has to be a difficult project to pull together, especially since all of the members have such busy and diverse schedules: Reid and Calhoun are Living Colour bandmates in the middle of a tour. Calhoun is stepping into the role of a leader in his own right in the jazz world and has just wrapped up an album in tribute to the late drum legend Elvin Jones, and Gibbs plays with Harriet Tubman, which is also putting finishing touches on a release (due at the end of 2016 I’m told). These are only highlights of the artists’ main projects: to list all of their work would take way more space and research than there’s time for right now. The point is that these folks are seriously busy, and that’s part of what makes this collaboration so special.

This set felt slightly tighter than the Iridium date in the spring, which was not necessarily a bad thing. The spring set had more of the feel of sitting in on a dress rehearsal. To be clear, the music itself was at a high level both times. In the latest date, there were fewer inside jokes flowing, but the essence of what makes this group fantastic was intact, which is the high level of musical (and personal) respect between the musicians involved, trust, and sense of timing that’s the sign of a collective that’s working. That’s no small thing. The music industry is rife with stories of people who hate each other off the bandstand, but somehow manage to make things work long enough to get paid for the gig. That’s definitely not the case here. These musicians like and trust each other a lot and that’s expressed in the music.

The set started with a nod to the Blues (a recurring theme for this group) via their cover of guitarist Junior Kimbrough’s “Sad Days”. Here, Kimbrough’s work, transplanted from its Mississippi Hill Country juke joint roots, was turned up a notch (and rendered in a different key, according to Reid) into a searing electric rocker.

This was followed by a reverb-heavy soulful ballad that had Calhoun switching between drumsticks and mallets that referenced another key influence on the group: the late drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. Reid simply said that “none of the things that have happened [to them as a collective], would’ve happened without him.” He explained in slightly greater detail in an interview on the Iridium’s blog that Jackson “was a real connection” between Gibbs and himself, as both of whom were bandmates in Jackson’s groups and drew his lessons firsthand, while Calhoun was heavily influenced by his musical ideas as a young player.

Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” seamlessly fit into the set, with Reid purposefully bending the original’s plaintive saxophone melody and using it as a launchpad for the the group’s high energy collective improvisation.

The Jazz standard “King Tut Strut” had a brief call-and-answer between Reid and Calhoun and climaxed with a cymbal-crashing flourish by Calhoun that even a broken drumstick couldn’t interrupt. Reid wrapped the infectious repeated phrase at the center of the the song around his guitar and turned it to perfection.

The set ended, appropriately enough, with Ronald Shannon Jackson’s “Street Priest” and space was created for one of Calhoun’s trademark thundering drum solos that started on electronics before being finished on the drum set. While some drum solos are a formality, Calhoun’s are narratives in themselves, with clear progression and the type of engagement that showcases just one of his talents on the instrument. I’ve written about his incredible versatility on the drum kit before (and he’s equally adept on a range of percussion instruments), but Calhoun is an artist who can say a lot with percussion instruments.

Reid says that more shows are in the offing and added that there are thoughts of recording a release when prompted. Both of those things—like the exact name of the group—are works in progress. Stay tuned. The end result will be well worth your attention.
Will Calhoun is at Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park for a free outdoor performance as part of the Jazzmobile series on August 12th. He also appears with Living Colour on the 17th in a special acoustic set at City Winery or, at the Afropunk Fest in Brooklyn on the 28th.
Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.