Premier Guitar

Interview: Spectrum Road - Fusing Muses

June 8, 2012

If you’re a fan of fusion—not the flaccid new-age drivel playing over the decrepit sound system of a declining department store, but the merging of stellar jazz musicianship and unpredictability with rocking tones and instrumentation—then you’re probably no stranger to legendary drummer Tony Williams and his hugely influential band. The Tony Williams Lifetime was arguably the first, full-on jazz-rock fusion band, and in its many incarnations it was the launching pad for some of jazz-rocks biggest giants. It was the band from which jazz god Miles Davis—who, less than a decade before, had hired Williams to man the skins in his band at age 17—somewhat controversially, plucked the young John McLaughlin, who would later go on to form the mighty Mahavishnu Orchestra. It was also the band from which Allan Holdsworth, following his stint with the Soft Machine, would influence an entire generation of guitarists with his startlingly fluid chops. (Perhaps most notable was his influence on Eddie Van Halen, whose phrasing, note choices, and tone owe hugely to Holdsworth’s playing on Lifetime songs like the classic “Red Alert” from 1975’s Believe It.)

Of the many players influenced by Tony Williams, Jack Bruce and Vernon Reid aren’t necessarily best known for their fusion work. Bruce practically wrote the book on power-trio rock bass playing with his groundbreaking work in Cream with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker. And Reid found fame as the ferocious fret-burner who, along with his bandmates in Living Colour, was at the forefront of the late-’80s funk-metal vanguard. However, as their discographies prove, both players are avowed fans of the aforementioned fusion icons. Which is why they recently joined forces with former Lenny Kravitz drummer Cindy Blackman-Santana and Hammond B3 guru John Medeski to pay their respects to Williams and the Lifetime as Spectrum Road.

On their eponymously titled debut, the four virtuosos revisit Lifetime’s surging, stylistically expansive material, digging into deep, free-flowing improvisations as well as poetic vocal tunes. Most of the Lifetime songs on Spectrum Road (with the exception of Believe It’s “Wild Life”) are drawn from Lifetime’s earlier albums, including 1969’s Emergency! and 1970’s Turn It Over. The latter of these two fusion classics featured none other than Bruce on bass and vocals.

While Bruce is most often remembered as the voice and brawn powering hits like “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room,” the fact is that just a couple years after his short tenure in Cream, he was whisked into Lifetime when Williams dropped by the Fillmore East to check out Bruce’s band. Jazz, and rock, would never be the same.

Jack, how did you first connect with Tony Williams, and what attracted you to this genre of music that was emerging in the late ’60s?
Jack Bruce:
Well, I had first heard Tony playing on [jazz saxophonist] Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch!. When I listened to that record, I just fell in love with his style, because he completely turned the drums around. He wouldn’t necessarily play the snare drum part on the snare drum—he might play it on the bass drum or something else altogether.

One night I was playing with my own band at the Fillmore East. There were a bunch of people down at the East that night, including Hendrix, and John McLaughlin had brought Tony along with him. Tony said to me, “Do you want to join my band?” I said “Sure, okay.” And I did! [laughs].


Bruce with Spectrum Road live at the legendary Yoshi’s Jazz Club in Oakland, California, on February 5, 2011. Photo by Jerome Brunet

You’ve said your experience with the Tony Williams Lifetime was “the musical time of my life.”
Bruce:
It was exactly like when Cream was just beginning and getting really hot—that kind of magic, with all the aspiration and the psychedelic thing happening in the best possible way. The same thing applied to Lifetime, because it seemed like that was happening all over again for me. In fact, it was probably on another level from Cream.

What sort of influence would you say Lifetime had on music?
Bruce:
I think the band probably had quite an influence on Miles and various others, but I don’t think the Lifetime had as much of an impact as it might have had. It was more on individuals who managed to hear the band live or on their records. It was not long lasting enough, but the people who were fortunate enough to hear that band—or in my case, play with them—certainly changed their attitude to music in many ways.

Vernon Reid: I would say that the impact of Lifetime is discreetly massive. Jazz-rock, from the jazz side, actually started with the emergence of Lifetime. Yes, you already had improvising rock bands—from King Crimson to the Soft Machine—and you could even say that Hendrix’s approach was very improvisational. You could argue that the psychedelic era had created a space for fusion to happen. And somewhere in there, a young Tony Williams created his own expression of this collision of those sounds.

From the standpoint of the guitar, the Lifetime’s influence has been tremendous. After Santana and Hendrix, McLaughlin’s playing with Lifetime certainly changed my life. The roots of his genius are inside the Lifetime album Emergency! By the time you get to Miles’ Live-Evil and A Tribute to Jack Johnson, and eventually Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Inner Mounting Flame, there’s a remarkable transformation.

Although Holdsworth had played with the Soft Machine, his big impact on the world of guitar came with Lifetime’s Believe It, which almost overnight became the musician’s-musician record. On Believe It, Holdsworth simultaneously inspired a generation and flipped them completely out! Holdsworth was as original as McLaughlin, but completely different. And while people often focus on Holdsworth’s chops, to me he’s just incredibly lyrical with this great facility and legato feel.

Lifetime included other great guitarists like Ted Dunbar and Ronnie Montrose. There was even a version of Lifetime that never recorded. It featured Ryo Kawasaki as the guitarist. So a big part of Tony Williams’ legacy is that he loved guitar and clearly had an ear for rock-inflected guitar. That certainly all had a giant impact on me. In many ways, this is the music that forged who I am.




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 greatest strengths?
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.

Jack Bruce's Gear

Basses
Warwick Jack Bruce Rio Rosewood Thumb NT, Warwick Jack Bruce JB3 Survivor, Gibson EB-1

Amps
Hartke HA3500C head, Hartke 410XL and 115XL cabinets

Strings
SIT Rock Brights Nickel Medium sets (.050–.105)

Vernon Reid's Gear

Guitars
Parker DF824VR Vernon Reid Signature MaxxFly, ’58 Gibson ES-345, ’90s Hamer Custom Chaparral, ’90s PRS McCarty

Amps
Mesa/Boogie 100-watt Dual Rectifier, Randall MTS Series RM100M (including Treadplate, Kirk Hammett KH3, and Blackface modules), Fender Twin Reverb, Randall RV412 cabs

Effects
Roland VG-99 V-Guitar System and FC-300 MIDI Foot Controller, Eventide PitchFactor, Eventide ModFactor, Strymon El Capistan, Schumann Electronics PLL analog square-wave harmonizer, Moog MoogerFooger MF-107 FreqBox and EP-2 Expression Pedal, Fractal Audio Axe-Fx Ultra with MFC-101 MIDI Foot Controller, Z.Vex Fuzz Factory, Z.Vex Lo-Fi Loop Junky, Pefftronics SB-101 Super Rand- O-Matic, Pigtronix Echolution

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
D’Addario EXP115 (.011 to .049), Dunlop JD JazzTone 205 and 208, Dunlop TeckPick Aluminum, Surfpicks, Brossard custom picks

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.




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 greatest strengths?
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.

Jack Bruce's Gear

Basses
Warwick Jack Bruce Rio Rosewood Thumb NT, Warwick Jack Bruce JB3 Survivor, Gibson EB-1

Amps
Hartke HA3500C head, Hartke 410XL and 115XL cabinets

Strings
SIT Rock Brights Nickel Medium sets (.050–.105)

Vernon Reid's Gear

Guitars
Parker DF824VR Vernon Reid Signature MaxxFly, ’58 Gibson ES-345, ’90s Hamer Custom Chaparral, ’90s PRS McCarty

Amps
Mesa/Boogie 100-watt Dual Rectifier, Randall MTS Series RM100M (including Treadplate, Kirk Hammett KH3, and Blackface modules), Fender Twin Reverb, Randall RV412 cabs

Effects
Roland VG-99 V-Guitar System and FC-300 MIDI Foot Controller, Eventide PitchFactor, Eventide ModFactor, Strymon El Capistan, Schumann Electronics PLL analog square-wave harmonizer, Moog MoogerFooger MF-107 FreqBox and EP-2 Expression Pedal, Fractal Audio Axe-Fx Ultra with MFC-101 MIDI Foot Controller, Z.Vex Fuzz Factory, Z.Vex Lo-Fi Loop Junky, Pefftronics SB-101 Super Rand- O-Matic, Pigtronix Echolution

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
D’Addario EXP115 (.011 to .049), Dunlop JD JazzTone 205 and 208, Dunlop TeckPick Aluminum, Surfpicks, Brossard custom picks

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.



YouTube It
Check out Spectrum Road in action in the following YouTube clips.


Shot live in December 2008 at the Blue Note Tokyo, this clip shows Bruce, Reid, and Co. tearing through “Vuelta Abajo”—from the Tony Williams Lifetime’s second record, Turn It Over—in beautifully chaotic fashion.


At this intimate February 2011 show at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley in Seattle, Spectrum Road goes from free-form to straight groove and back again—all while taking turns showcasing their respective world-class chops.


After a sampling of Jack Bruce’s still gorgeously haunting vocals on “One Word,” this clip breaks at the 2:00 mark into a section where Bruce reflects on the Lifetime and the honor it was to play with Tony Williams.



YouTube It
Check out Spectrum Road in action in the following YouTube clips.


Shot live in December 2008 at the Blue Note Tokyo, this clip shows Bruce, Reid, and Co. tearing through “Vuelta Abajo”—from the Tony Williams Lifetime’s second record, Turn It Over—in beautifully chaotic fashion.


At this intimate February 2011 show at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley in Seattle, Spectrum Road goes from free-form to straight groove and back again—all while taking turns showcasing their respective world-class chops.


After a sampling of Jack Bruce’s still gorgeously haunting vocals on “One Word,” this clip breaks at the 2:00 mark into a section where Bruce reflects on the Lifetime and the honor it was to play with Tony Williams.