Archives for posts with tag: Vernon Reid Power Trio

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.
 
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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.

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The Vernon Reid Power Trio at work at Iridium

The Vernon Reid Power Trio at work at Iridium


Words by Hank Williams | Photos by Joyce Jones. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND.
 
Guitarist Vernon Reid began the set of his “Power Trio” at Manhattan’s Iridium club on Saturday March 12 by explaining that it was the first time that particular combination of musicians had played together in 20 years. That didn’t mean that they were unfamiliar with each other—on the contrary—they were indeed so familiar with each other that the set had the feel of a jam session more than anything else as inside jokes floated around and musicians finished each other’s sentences. This was a good thing and set the tone for an intimate night of intense music.
 
Reid and drummer Will Calhoun have been official on-and-off bandmates in Living Colour for decades now in addition to sharing numerous stages for smaller projects, such as this one. The connection between Reid and bassist Melvin Gibbs is incredibly deep as well, as both are alumni of the late drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society band and the Punk Funk All Stars. All three are members of the Brooklyn-based Black Rock Coalition.
Guitarist Vernon Reid

Guitarist Vernon Reid


 
All of this is to say that to hear them playing means hearing a group of musicians so incredibly in sync with each other that verbal communication is secondary to the musical connection that happens on stage and emanates from deep listening and reacting to each other.
 
The second overarching theme of the evening was the legacy of drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, whose songs provided the base for several of their explorations.
 
Indeed, the trio began the set with one of Jackson’s songs, with Reid setting the tone on guitar, backed by Gibbs’ distinctive distorted bass lines and Calhoun’s drumming.
 
Next came an innovative cover of Miles Davis’ version of “Freedom Jazz Dance”, which was perfectly suited to their treatment, as Reid stretched the familiar melody to the limits. The song finished with a back-and-forth between Reid and Gibbs, backed by Calhoun’s heavy foot on the bass drum.
 
There was also a song dedicated to the late percussionist Nana Vasconcelos, who Reid described as “a magician” who would “recreate the [feeling of] the rain forest” when he played. It began, appropriately, with a solo by Calhoun on an enormous mbira.
Drummer Will Calhoun on mbira

Drummer Will Calhoun on mbira


 
Gibbs jokingly introduced a cover of the blues standard “I Ain’t Superstitious” with the rejoinder that they were now going to play some American music. Reid’s capable romp through Willie Dixon’s classic lyrics proved that he can carry a tune as well as play a guitar like a man possessed. It also showed the range of the players as Reid and Calhoun effortlessly sunk into the blues rhythms, then exited just as quickly as the song ended in a glorious haze of distortion.
Bassist Melvin Gibbs

Bassist Melvin Gibbs


 
The set finished, appropriately enough, with a cover of Ronald Shannon Jackson’s “Street Priest”, led off by one of Calhoun’s trademark thundering drum solos.
Drummer Will Calhoun

Drummer Will Calhoun


 
Iridium’s bio of Reid accurately predicted the night’s set, noting that he’s “done a great deal to undermine stereotypical expectations of what music Black artists ought to play; his rampant eclecticism encompasses everything from hard rock and punk to funk, R&B and avant-garde jazz, and his anarchic, lightning-fast solos have become something of a hallmark”. And the group indeed delivered on pretty much all counts, with diasporic nods to Nana Vasconcelos and Africa thrown into the mix as well.
 
The early set drew an audience that nearly filled Iridium and was rewarded with a strong performance. Reid has curated an occasional series of guitar-based shows at iridium and promised a return engagement for Saturday night’s lineup, though had no definite date for the latter. Let’s hope that comes to fruition and if you missed this set, you’d be well advised to keep an eye out for the next one. Here’s hoping that the incredibly busy schedules of all three don’t result in another 20-year wait.
 
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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.
 
Joyce Jones is the executive producer and host of Suga’ in My Bowl. She is a graphic designer and her photos have been published in Black Renaissance Noir.

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