STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
It’s time to get “freqy.” The Free Form Funky Freqs are coming back to Philadelphia. And if you’re into mind-blowing, improvisational exploration that encompasses rock, jazz, funk and experimental music, this is a show for you.
The trio is comprised of two Philadelphians — renowned bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and drummer G. Calvin Weston — as well as famed guitarist Vernon Reid, best known for performing with Living Colour.
It all started when Weston booked a show at the now-defunct club Tonic in New York City, circa 2007. After booking the gig he realized he needed a band, so he contacted Tacuma and Reid. That performance was the first time the three performed on stage together, and it was done without any rehearsals.
In a phone interview from his home in Staten Island, Reid explained that they all first met through the extended musical family of saxophonist Ornette Coleman, one of the pioneers of free jazz. Both Tacuma and Weston had performed with Coleman, and Reid had performed with drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, who had performed with Coleman.
“The drummer who really changed my life was Ronald Shannon Jackson,” said Reid. “We kind of met around the culture that emerged out of the stuff that was happening at that time. There (are a lot of) great players who have been part of the Ornette Coleman experience.”
After that first show the band members realized that something special was happening so they did it again — this time in Philadelphia at Tritone, which, sadly, is also no longer in existence. That performance was also completely improvised.
Reid explains how the music comes together.
“We’re a completely improvised trio. The only time we play together is when we’re actually playing for people. We don’t sound check together. We do our sound checks individually and in pairs. So we actually don’t play until we’re playing. It’s really unique.
“There is (a) kind of structure. It’s kind of improvised structurally. There’s a lot of times someone will start a theme or come up with a riff. Like Jamaaladeen is a bass line machine; he’ll come up with cool bass lines all day long. And then I’ll throw some chords on top or I’ll find a melody and Calvin will come up with a rhythm.
“Sometimes it’s the other way around. Sometimes — because I do live looping — I’ll loop a part or Calvin will just start playing a beat and we try to fit in with that.”
How do the musicians ensure that it’s not total mayhem?
Sound Evidence“It’s mainly about being receptive and keeping one’s ears open and seeing what can be contributed — either a sound or a rhythm or a melody or an attitude. That’s pretty much how it goes,” said Reid. “Sometimes it works more than other times, but 8 times out of 10 it’s really remarkable. Things will just kind of happen.
“In a way it’s a power trio version of what the Art Ensemble of Chicago did,” adds Reid. “There are parts of it that are like punk. There are parts of it that are harmolodic like Ornette Coleman and there are parts of it that have more of a fusion vibe. It kind of grows and morphs into these different things.”
The band has recorded 2 studio albums – “Urban Mythology, Volume One” (Thirsty Ear, 2008) and “Bon Vivant” (Free Form Funky Freqs, 2011). A third studio album is being planned for this year. Even the studio recordings are completely improvised.
“The first studio album, ‘Urban Mythology,’ is the actual third performance that the band did,” said Reid. That first album was produced by Reid. “Bon Vivant” was produced by Tacuma and the third album will be produced by Weston.
Reid adds: “I also have plans to do a kind of ‘mash up’ record … after the next one that Calvin (produces) because I have a bunch of recordings. I have about the first 50 shows and I want to do a mash up/remix thing by taking bits and pieces from the shows.”
It’s the unique aspects of this project that keep the band members coming back for more. The show at Johnny Brenda’s will be the band’s 70th performance. The biggest challenge is finding the time, between Reid’s busy touring schedule with Living Colour and Tacuma’s commitments to various projects.
“Because everyone’s so busy it can be a challenge to do it, but … you tend to miss it after a while and we say ‘let’s make some stuff happen,’ and that’s how it goes down.”
IF YOU GO
What: Free Form Funky Freqs with Tom Spiker
When: Friday, Feb. 20 at 8:30 p.m.; doors open at 8.
Where: Johnny Brenda’s, 1201 Frankford Ave., Philadelphia.
Tickets: $15 at www.johnnybrendas.com