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Bruce slides way up high on his signature Warwick Rio Rosewood Thumb NT during a Spectrum Road jam in early 2011 at Yoshi’s Jazz Club in Oakland. Photo by Jerome Brunet
The two of you also played together back
in 2001 with the Cuicoland Express.
Bruce: Vernon actually played on a record of mine called A Question of Time around 1990. It was right around the time Living Colour really hit when he came in and played on a track, and I just fell in love with his playing. Since then, whenever I’ve had a chance to play with him, I’ve gone for it.
Reid: That happened during a time when I was meeting a lot of my heroes—a crazy, wonderful time in my life where I was playing with Garland Jeffreys and doing stuff with Santana. Jack reached out to me, and he’s continued to be very supportive of me. I’ve been very fortunate to play on a couple of his solo projects.
What would you say are each other’s
Reid: Jack brings an extraordinary passion to things, and he’s able to access the entire stylistic range of the bass, because he’s just so incredibly knowledgeable. I love his take on “There Comes a Time.” The interplay between how he sings that and plays the bass, and the way that allows space to open up for my playing is just so lyrical.
He also has a great ability to reharmonize things and to create bass motion that emerges as a distinct voice. In fact, the key thing I always learn from my heroes—and this certainly applies to Jack—is to stay away from the “licks mentality,” where it’s all about this lick and that lick, as if a player is basically the sum of his licks.
I really prefer to think in terms of the voice of these great players. With the Lifetime stuff, I’ve found it useful to think about playing things similar to the original guys, but not the same things. The reason I got into guitar to begin with was that Carlos Santana’s guitar sounded like a totally individual voice to me. It wasn’t a collection of scales and licks—it had a singularity, if you will. And sure, that singularity, as with all players, can be broken down into its component parts—certain tonalities and techniques.
The key thing as a player is to transcend the influence in order to have a voice. It’s easy—and, I think, especially easy for guitarists— to get caught up in the poetry of someone else, and not find the poetry in themselves. I’d like to think that Jack reached out to me because he heard the poetry in my playing. And that makes me feel good. I mean, this is a guy who’s played with Clapton, Robin Trower, and Gary Moore!
Bruce: Vernon’s chops are such that he plays so much and so fast that you have to kind of slow it down in order to really hear it properly. I think he plays so great that people aren’t really aware of what he’s doing. A lot of people don’t really hear what he’s doing. It’s like listening to a songbird or something—you have to slow it down because it’s going about 40 times faster than anything human, you know? He’s definitely not human, but he’s great!
Reid busts out his inimitably catonic licks on his MIDI-outfitted signature Parker. Photo by Pino Fama
Have there been any instances where you
guys surprised each other, musically?
Reid: Man, Jack just swings really hard. I mean, in “Blues for Tillman”—one of the originals on the record—he swings the doors off! He’s got that amazing, behind-the-beat swing. But the biggest surprise for me was when he first sang in Scottish Gaelic on the traditional song “An t-Eilean Muileach.” I mean, that was a jaw-dropping and indelible moment. I was totally gobsmacked.
Bruce: The very first time I played with Vernon, we did a song of mine called “Life and Earth,” and he was playing these bebop lines on this very rock song. I knew then he was the guy for me [laughs].
You come from entirely different musical
generations. Was it hard to bridge that gap?
Bruce: I don’t think there are any real differences in generations of music. If your goals are the same, it’s got nothing to do with age or anything like that. Great music is timeless, and the same thing applies to musicians.
Is there any track on the record that was
particularly important for each of you to
be included on the album?
Bruce: For me, it was “Vuelta Abajo,” which I feel was a really great composition of Tony’s. It was very important for me to get that on there because I was actually present at the beginning. When I joined Tony’s band, “Vuelta Abajo” was the first thing we recorded. Tony didn’t write all the tunes on the record, but they’re all pretty important. There’s “Coming Back Home” by Jan Hammer, and a couple of John McLaughlin tunes, as well as a couple of tunes that come from this band, Spectrum Road—it’s a bit of a mixture.
Reid: I really wanted to do “Coming Back Home”—it’s one of my favorite Jan Hammer pieces. Tony played it on his 1978 solo album The Joy of Flying with George Benson, and it’s a delightful melody. It was really daunting to take on. There’s a lot of influence from George Benson on the first half, with the whole clean-tone thing, but after that I felt, “I really have to make this thing my own.” It’s one of my favorite moments on the whole record.
With the level of improvisation happening
when the group is playing live, how
comfortable are you going into each show?
Bruce: That’s the exciting thing, because we quite often don’t know what’s going to happen. And, obviously, with improvisation, anything can happen—because everybody’s the leader and nobody’s the leader, y’know? I find that very exciting, and I believe audiences do nowadays, too. There was a period when that wasn’t happening, but I think people like it again.
Reid: In terms of improvising, we play live much like the record, and follow a certain order for the solos. And yes, we do follow much the same script that the original tunes dictate. Sure, there’s always some risk involved with the totally improvised pieces—it can work, or it can totally not work. But that can happen with any piece of music, even one that’s composed to the nines. Every piece of music ultimately faces the same issues in performance.
I also find it really gratifying that people are becoming interested in Tony again. He was an artist who I feel was really misunderstood in a lot of ways. When I hear a band like Medeski Martin & Wood or the Mars Volta, which are totally different from each other, I hear a real connection to the impulse that the Lifetime had. By virtue of the Bonnaroo Festival—which we’re playing this summer—and the jam-band culture that the Grateful Dead spawned, this style of music is possibly more accepted now than it was then.