VERNON REID & MASQUE
Vernon Reid - Guitar and Guitar Synth
Leon Gruenbaum - Organ, Piano, Casio, Samchillian Tip Tip Tip Cheeepeeeee
Hank Schroy - Bass
Marlon Browden - Drums
DJ Logic - Special Guest on Voodoo Pimp Stroll
Vernon Reid leads a double life. You know him as the guitarist and songwriter for the Grammy Award-winning band Living Colour, but there’s another Vernon Reid — the one who hails from the dark alleys of the downtown New York music scene, and who seems to enjoy nothing more than smashing musical preconceptions and conventions.
This is the one who has collaborated with scores of greats like Public Enemy, Mick Jagger, Carlos Santana and the Roots, produced Grammy®-nominated albums by Salief Keita and James “Blood” Ulmer, and composed soundtracks for film, theater, and dance. This is the “unknown” Vernon, and the two sides come together, along with a team of innovative and adventurous young musicians, to create the musical thrill ride that is Known Unknown.
You know the sound. Reid’s signature scratch-and-growl guitar opens the title track, bursting with energetic and catchy melodies. Then everything takes a sharp turn and you’re not sure where you are anymore. You may be riding through the Bitches Brew improvisational freak-out of “Down and Out in Kigali and Freetown.” Or you might be exploring “The Outskirts” of surf-guitar and modal jazz. Maybe you’re at the quiet intersection of “Flatbush and Church” where you can take a breather and chill. Things look familiar. You hear familiar sounds, see familiar shapes and colors, but it’s all coming down in a way that’s new. It’s exhilarating. You’ve arrived in the Unknown.
Vernon Reid is the chief architect behind this innovative sonic landscape. Sometimes using his guitar as a paintbrush, evoking small melodic nuances, sometimes using it as a jackhammer, obliterating everything in its path, Vernon Reid is part guitar player and part visionary artist.
Says Reid, “I think of Masque as a component part of my life's expression.” Recorded in New York over a two year period between touring and other gigs, Known Unknown flickers with life, combining nuanced studio sessions and live takes. The approach to every piece is as unique as the music itself, built around Reid’s melodic compositions, bubbling up from inspired improvisation, or ripping through what Reid likes to call “fractured standards,” like Masque’s treatment of Monk’s “Brilliant Corners” and Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder”.
True to its title, Known Unknown comes together like a dazzling collage of both the foreign and the familiar, with each intricate piece crafted perfectly so that when it’s all in place, it fits together in a surprising new way.
It makes perfect sense. Vernon Reid is a man who draws inspiration from both guitar rock gods and jazz giants alike, and knows the truth: It’s all music. Discussing Hendrix and Santana, Reid likens their playing to “a quality of speech, of an almost unearthly communion with something extraordinary and visionary that transcends the song or the notes that they chose.” Then, in the same breath, he exalts 70’s era Miles and Pete Cosey, and talks about his religious experience the first time he heard Coltrane play “My Favorite Things”: “I had no idea that a melody could sound like that; that a song could be that.” He knows it now, and it’s our gain.
Known Unknown draws in some of the New York underground’s finest young players. Both Hank Schroy (bass) and Leon Gruenbaum (keyboards, Samchillian Tip Tip Tip Cheeepeeeee) have been working with Reid for years, with both playing on Masque’s debut album Mistaken Identity. Drummer Marlon Browden comes fresh from his recent work with jazz guitar legend John Scofield, and is as adventurous, fluid, and facile as drummers come. Together, the three are a fearsome force that at once act as tour guides in this strange Unknown world, and more than occasionally strike out on their own interpretive route.
In particular, Gruenbaum, with his peculiar hand-crafted keyboard, the Samchillian Tip Tip Tip Cheeepeeeee, brings an otherworldly, ethereal color to “Strange Blessing” and “Brilliant Corners.” And ebullient pioneer and Downtown mainstay, DJ Logic, provides cuts and scratches for the groove-heavy “Voodoo Pimp Stroll,” continuing his ongoing collaboration with Reid which includes the release of their critically lauded “Front End Lifter” (as the Yohimbe Brothers) in 2002.
Vernon and Favored Nations founder and guitar legend Steve Vai have been friends for years, and both are thrilled to have Masque as part of the label’s lineup. Reid is particularly enthusiastic about his feelings for Vai: “Steve is astounding in a way that words really fail to articulate, so I'll just go eeeeeeek.”
Anyone who’s ever traveled knows the best part of any journey is that moment of surprise, where you find something you didn’t know you were looking for. And that’s what Known Unknown is all about: Darting through musical alleyways, browsing through the local bazaars and shops, you suddenly stumble on something rare and glorious. Something worthwhile. Something you never knew you were missing. It’s what Reid calls a “visionary experience.” And when you find yourself arriving at the album’s final destination, the epic “X Unknown,” you’ve found something new, and are returned to where you came from.
Wherever that is.