‘My identity is a fusion’: How Vernon Reid found his sound

Brad Barker is the music director and host of Afternoon Drive at JAZZ.FM91.


Vernon Reid is one of the great guitarists of his generation.

From a career that started in Ronald Shannon Jackson’s band in the ‘80s, to the huge successes with rock group Living Colour — including multi-platinum and gold records — to a solo career that had him playing with the likes of Jack Bruce, DJ Logic and the late, great Geri Allen, he’s an artist who has always pushed boundaries and continually explores new ways to communicate, both with his instrument and his compositions.

Reid visited Toronto to play as a special guest at Hugh’s Room Live on Thursday, May 30, celebrating the release of 13go‘s new album Domestic Tranquility. While he was here, he stopped by the JAZZ.FM91 studios to talk about his love of Geri Allen, how his multicultural upbringing influenced his outlook on music, and how he found his own unique style.

(Scroll to the bottom if you want to listen to the full audio!)

Vernon, thanks for being here with us.

Hey man, you know what, I want to say thank you for mentioning Geri Allen because she’s an artist that wasn’t just an amazing instrumentalist, but just an incredibly soulful person. She was a very good friend to me. (She’s one of) the people that you meet in your journey that have a real impact. I love her forever. Of course, she’s this iconic musician, and if she wasn’t a woman — because the sexism thing is real — she would have been considered literally one of the greatest of her generation. Her love for Motown of Detroit, she never let go. That’s one of the things I adore about her. I’m just going to say that as a shout-out to her spirit, because she was not just a great musician but just a terrific person.

The outpouring when she passed wasn’t a surprise, but it came from so many different areas. So many people were so heartfelt in the same way as you —

You’re trying to make me cry on the radio!

So, you were born in the U.K. and came as a young person to the U.S. What kind of music was playing in your house?

My parents from Montserrat, they were part of the Caribbean migration. People talk about the Great Migration, in America, from the South to the industrial cities. Well, there was a parallel migration from the Caribbean islands to Canada, to the U.K. and to America. My parents went to the U.K. and then ultimately wound up in America. In our household, we heard everything. One of the things that was really brilliant about my parents was that they let the music play. I wasn’t told this was white music or this was black music. I was left to make my own judgments. Because my parents lived in London, when The Beatles came on The Ed Sullivan Show, that was a real event. My mom was into a bunch of the British Invasion bands. Of course, James Brown and Sly Stone and all of that music was paramount. Al Green, oh my god, my aunts — don’t get me started. I think my youngest aunt might have taken an extra pair of panties to see Al Green.

So, my identity is a fusion. I grew up with kids from North Carolina. I grew up with bamas and coconuts. My favourite cuisines were catfish, Johnnycake, ginger beer and watermelon. Those are the things that framed my reality. I was exposed, early on, to all of this music. I remember seeing B. B. King on TV, and seeing all the Motown artists come on TV, and then later on when I got into high school, I met all these incredible musicians and got turned onto John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman…

Were you playing at that time?

I really started playing in the summer of my freshman year, going into my sophomore year. There was a saxophonist … (who) had an after-school program where he played records. I went on a class trip to Radio City Music Hall to see The Sound of Music. This teacher played John Coltrane’s version of My Favorite Things. It struck me. I really loved that song — the Julie Andrews original — and when I heard John Coltrane’s version, I felt very strongly that he loved that song, too. He was interpreting, “When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad,” with his horn. He was really trying to play the feelings of that lyric. Those are the kinds of collisions, like Mongo Santamaria’s version of Cold Sweat, or James Brown’s version of Cold Sweat, and hearing this funky Latin version, and hearing the connections, how they’re different but they’re the same. Those are the kinds of things that really entered my mind — that and Star Trek and science fiction and The Day the Earth Stood Still, hearing a theremin.

I want to talk about your approach a little bit, because it’s so unique. Is this what you heard in your head since you picked up a guitar, or was there always this voice in you that said, “I need to find my own voice”?

When you hear a Jimi Hendrix, or an Allan Holdsworth, or a Carlos Santana, or a Jeff Beck … When you hear these guitarists who are fabulous, there are a couple things that happen. It’s incredibly daunting. You either go spend your time trying to sound like them, or you take the opposite lesson.

Of course, influence is important. With Stevie Ray Vaughan, you hear Albert King, and you hear Jimi Hendrix, but mostly you hear Stevie Ray Vaughan. So, I wanted to play stuff like Hendrix, but I didn’t want to play exactly Hendrix’s thing. Carlos Santana was my first influence, but Carlos was living his life. The question was, what is my life? Part of it is this whole idea of (having) no direction home. I am a child of immigrants, and I didn’t go to the West Indies as a child. So when I went to the West Indies, I was a bloody tourist. Like I said, I grew up with Johnnycake and ginger beer, but I also grew up with watermelon and catfish. So that’s why it always bothers me when people talk about authenticity and roots. I respect it, I get it, but you have to be who you are wherever you are.


This interview has been edited and condensed.