Vernon Reid & Masque: Known Unknown (2004)
A member of the Downtown New York scene for many years, guitarist Vernon Reid is better known for his genre-blasting work with Living Color. Still, over the years he has collaborated with such a wide variety of artists including Bill Frisell, David Torn and, most notably, Ronald Shannon Jackson that it is difficult to peg down exactly what he is about; or is it? With Known Unknown , his second recording with his group Masque, Reid demonstrates one of the single largest components of his playing: organized chaos.
Whether it is on the anthemic title track, the New York-meets-New Orleans groove of the Meters-inspired "The Slouch" or his anarchic reading of Monk's "Brilliant Corners," Reid's solo style is best described as reckless abandon with a sense of purpose. And that's a good thing and a bad thing. Sometimes, with the cacophony of sound generated by his effects-laden instrument, and the staggeringly rapid-fire blur of notes he produces, articulation becomes a problem and he runs the risk of sounding same-y and predictable. Still, for fans of high energy metal-cum-fusion, he represents the truly insane alternative to other practitioners of high technique like Steve Vai, whose Favored Nations label is responsible for releasing this record, Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen.
With a more overt pop sensibility than his first Masque recording, 1996's Mistaken Identity , and with a new band, this is a different recording; but the one thing that ties it to the first record is Reid's attempts to fuse numerous styles, including rock, reggae, funk, hip-hop and, of course, jazz. The problem is that while his marriages are academically interesting, they sometimes have difficulty rising above the clinical.
Still, tracks like "Outskirts," with frenetic drumming from Marlon Browden in a completely different context than his work with pianist Jason Lindner, and an almost swinging middle section where keyboardist Leon Gruenbaum does his best to recreate the vibe that clarinettist Don Byron contributed to the first Masque recording, manage to elevate above the rest and generate some real interest, both intellectual and emotional. And Reid's reading of the Lee Morgan staple, "Sidewinder," marries funk and metal in a cleverly engaging way. "Time" is a blues-based track that provides a welcome relief from the intensity.
Known Unknown will not be to everybody's taste; surely Reid's almost unrelenting attack on the sense will be found excessive by many; but there is a group sound, a group identity that manages to emerge here, and it will be interesting to see if this is another one-off recording like Mistaken Identity , or if this is the beginning of a new stage in Reid's career.
Track Listing: Known Unknown; The Slouch; Brilliant Corners; Strange Blessing; Outskirts; Down and Out in Kigali and Freetown; Sidewinder; Voodoo Pimp Stroll; Time; Flatbush and Church; Ebow Underground (Excerpt); X The Unknown
Personnel: Vernon Reid: guitar, guitar synth; Leon Gruenbaum: organ, piano, casio, samchiillian tip tip tip cheeepeeeee; Hank Schroy: bass; Marlon Browden: drums; DJ Logic: turntables (8).