Vernon Reid and I have been Twitter-buddies for a while. We have a few friends in common, and had chatted a fair bit on there. He mentioned he was in London, I suggested meeting up, he invited me to his gig.
And what a gig – under the name Tongues Of Fire, it was a tribute to The Black Panthers, featuring David Murray on sax, Questlove on drums, the remarkable Jamaaladeen Tacuma on bass, Abiodun Oyewole and Umar Bin Hassan from the Last Poets, Black Thought and Ray Angry from the Roots, and Corey Glover and Vernon from Living Colour.
The music was remarkable – fiery enough to live up to the thematic inspiration, and broad enough to draw in everyone’s specialities. Questlove demonstrated once again why he’s one of the most important drummers of his generation, The Last Poets helped cement their legacy, David Murray was incendiary, with Vernon Reid sounding like the only guitar player who could match Murray in that setting.
But for me, the surprise was Corey Glover – despite being a big Living Colour fan, I’d never thought of his unique presence as a vocalist, distinct from the sound of the band. Corey’s voice IS Living Colour. So to hear him in this context, a long way from where you’d expect him (despite the comfort of having Vernon stood a few feet away, the freer moments were a long way from any territory close to LC), and for him to totally own the music whenever he stepped up to the mic was a revelation. It was his stage in those moments, the music served to support his vocal, but without the maelstrom being tamed. He was able to sing through it, to weave a path in a way that only the most self-assured and poised of artists could handle. It was genius.
Which got me thinking about why Corey is (relatively) rarely talked of outside of the context of the band. He doesn’t seem to end up on many high profile collaboration projects, and is rarely in lists of all time great vocalists, rock or otherwise.
The reason, I’d suggest is a two step logical progression – firstly, for a sound as commanding and identifiable as his to have reached prominence in a band as high profile as Living Colour were at their peak, the voice becomes the band, in a way that pretty much never happens with instrumentalists (even ones as unique and uncompromising as Vernon Reid, who crucially was already well-regarded before the band, and has made notable contributions to a number of projects outside the band).
So as a consequence, to invite Corey Glover into your project is to invite comparisons between your music and that of Living Colour, to be the jazz act that sounds a bit like Living Colour, to be the Reggae band with the Living Colour dude… Few artists are confident enough in their own personality and forward thinking enough in their casting of characters to be able to give vocalists that are that iconic a new context in which to show what they’re capable of away from their main project.
Which is why even I, as a big fan of LC, was so surprised at his commanding performance at the Barbican.
And when I began to think about it after the show, I realised that its been characteristic of people’s reaction to my work, that it apparently has a very strong perceptible signature of ‘me’… So without attempting to cast myself in the same light as Corey Glover, it certainly gave me pause for thought – there has always been a discrepancy between the degree of positive reaction to the projects I put on and host (the Recycle Collective being the most obvious example) and the number of other projects I’m invited to join. Every musician who ever played with the Recycle Collective expressed delight at being involved and asked to play again (despite minimal financial reward), but it was also clear that my own musical signature was carved deep into the personality of all the music that happened while I was actually playing.
The fact that through looping I’m able to define every aspect of the music I play – harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, sonic, idiomatic – makes it all the harder for people to envisage any of those elements as distinct from the others, and imagine it recontextualised away from StevieWorld.
Back to Corey, there are less accomplished singers who by being dynamic but ultimately more generic have been able to slot into other musical settings in a less threatening way and have become much higher profile by association. But that just means that those moments when you do get to hear artists like him outside of their expected zone are all the more special. And for those of us cursed with a similar ‘signature sound’, we can just keep hosting our own projects, or impressing on people that we’re capable of playing outside of that narrowly defined capacity…
I often say that I wish I’d done my solo work under a project name, mainly because my solo career killed my career playing for other people – I was rather busy through the late 90s playing normal bass for other artists, and that vanished when I started playing solo, partly for the reasons outlined above, and partly just because people were worried that any bassist who plays solo is just going to over play on their songs. Which is clearly bollocks.
But ultimately, my priority is integrity, it’s investing all the music I play with as many positive qualities as I can muster, to dig deep into my own reservoir of intention, to play mindfully. I can’t allow myself to worry about being too ‘me’, or fretting about how other people perceive what I do. Because, of course, even positive reactions can be misleading, endorsements can be unhelpful if they are misguided…
In this context, this version of ‘Portrait Of Tracy’ that I recorded for Total Guitar magazine some years ago, sits as a unique experiment in my musical life – it’s the only time I’ve ever attempted to learn any music written for solo bass that wasn’t written by me, it’s the only time I’ve ever learned any solo piece note for note from another musician, and it’s the only time I’ve been asked to cop another bassists, phrasing, articulation and tone. Particularly weird as it’s possibly the single most famous and celebrated piece of ‘solo bass music’ ever written. It was slightly disturbing to do, the disturbance mitigated mainly by the knowledge that I’d probably never have to do it again. And don’t ask me to play the tune now – I can only remember about the first 10 bars. I hope you enjoy it though:by