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Experi-metal jazz
Vernon Reid pushes the envelope with Masque

Plenty of guitarists can shred, but Vernon Reid brings something special to high-speed string slinging. Maybe itís his approach to ripping solos: chromatic runs that go wherever he pleases, ignoring the definitions of jazz, rock, blues, and ó at his most impassioned sonic heights ó even music. Heís also got sheer presence, standing in front of his amp as his dreadlocks sway, a wicked grin sliding onto his face as streams of notes leap from his big amplifier to split the air.

Whenever Reid took a solo during his appearance with his jazz-funk-rock outfit Masque at Johnny Dís on May 20, time seemed suspended. And not just because the male guitar nerds who made up most of the audience were trying to still their beating hearts. There was a bravado in the way Reid moved his fingers and lightly danced to the barrage of sound he produced, a kind of showmanship born of prodigious technique and a sense of abandon that even the most primal garage-rocker could grasp.

The down side was that whenever he stopped soloing, the electricity that crackled through the club sputtered out. Sure, Masque keyboardist Leon Gruebaum seems a match for the guitarist who founded hard-rock group Living Coloür, at least in technique. But with his Harvard Business School looks and the needling tone of his homemade Samchillian Tip Tip Tip Chee Peeeee synthesizer, Gruebaumís long solos seemed more onanistic than anything Reid wrapped his hands around. And the Tip Tip Tip Chee Peeeee was often hideously employed. In "CP Time," from Masqueís 1996 debut, Mistaken Identity (550 Music), it did recall the lush, fluty, and even guitar-like tonalities of the Jan Hammer Group. But then Gruebaum would flip the damn thing into a grating whinny and peck out notes with the rapidity of a mosquito that had drained a caffeine freak, conjuring visions of Dustin Hoffman strapped to a dentistís chair.

Fortunately, Reid plays plenty and Gruebaumís keyboard sounds generally less obnoxious on Known Unknown, the new album from Vernon Reid & Masque, as the band are properly called, on experi-metal guitarist Steve Vaiís Favored Nations label. From the opening title track, Reid is stretching his instrumentís traditional limitations, as well as its whammy bar, to propel the tune with sheets of sustained notes that surf on a rise of feedback. The tune soon yields to funk, as does much of the album, but it never bogs down in any one idiom. Covers of Thelonious Monkís heavenly "Brilliant Corners," turned here into a swing-and-stumble blend of gnarly fast rock and smooth flowing jazz, and undersung trumpet hero Lee Morganís groove-propelled "Sidewinder" rub bellies with the low-down burner "Voodoo Pimp Stroll" (where DJ Logic, Reidís partner in the Yohimbe Brothers, a guitar/electronica/roots project, adds beats and samples) and the sweetly avant-Hendrix "Flatbush and Church."

Overall, Known Unknown isnít as heavy or funky as Mistaken Identity. That makes it a little less fun, because Reid is most enjoyable when heís laying into his music with abandon. Maybe because of its covers, that restraint also makes Known Unknown more of a jazz album. And thatís not bad. After all, the jazz tag gives Reid license to improvise on this material in concert, and heís got both the chops and credibility, having landed his first high-profile gig with drummer Ronald Shannon Jacksonís bad-ass roots-and-improv outfit the Decoding Society. Plus, itís good news for jazz. The genre seems to be emerging from a long period of creative retrenchment that began in the í80s with Wynton Marsalis and other young lions who drew on the acoustic sounds of the í20s through the early í60s for inspiration. Granted, a lot of beautiful music was made under the neo-traditionalist umbrella, but jazzís spirit of innovation, which had been the musicís longstanding hallmark, was driven deep underground. In albums by Tim Berne, the Bad Plus, and a host of other artists including, now, Reid & Masque, that creative spirit looks to be in the early stages of a public renaissance.

Issue Date: June 4 - 10, 2004
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