As the 1960s turned to the 1970s, Jimi Hendrix set up shop at the Fillmore East in New York City with Band of Gypsys. Just a few months after his earthshaking appearance at Woodstock, the legendary guitarist formed a new trio with drummer Buddy Miles and bassist Billy Cox that debuted with four shows: two on New Year’s Eve on Dec. 31, 1969, and two more on New Year’s Day on Jan. 1, 1970.
The music from those nights forms the starting point for Vernon Reid's Band of Gypsys Revisited Band, a new project in which the Living Colour guitarist is joined by guitarist André “Dré Glo” Lassalle, drummer James “Biscuit” Rouse and bassist Jared Michael Nickerson with the aim of “revisiting, refreshing and further exploring the fun, funk & roll” of the “Band of Gypsys Live at The Fillmore East.”
The group, which is currently on its debut east coast tour, comes to the Haunt in Ithaca on Thursday, Oct. 31, for two sets of Band of Gypsys material along with a few other Hendrix songs.
“We do digressions from the originals, not a re-creation of the original pieces, but exploring what the music is,” Reid said in a phone interview. “The other thing about Jimi Hendrix is, he just had this extraordinary body of work and these songs are little time capsules of different expressions. All of his different influences are in there.”
Added Nickerson in a separate phone call: “It was a very influential record, and here we are now almost 50 years later, and we get to reintroduce people to how much fun and adventure is in the music. And that’s exciting.”
The original Band of Gypsys album, released in March 1970, drew from the second night of the Fillmore East stand, but over the years, the other nights have become available.
“When it first came out, we only had the one disc – we didn’t realize there were multiple nights of recordings,” Nickerson said. “But when they came out, you realized that he never played the tunes the same way – he was always experimenting with them, being loose with them.”
It’s that spirit of experimentation and improvisation that fuels this new project, which made its debut in early 2018 and then sold out eight sets at the San Francisco Jazz Festival last October. All four of the band members have known each other for a long time, and have occasionally played with each other in various projects around New York City.
“I’ve known Jared for years, and André is literally a childhood friend from when I first started playing guitar,” Reid said. “He’s the one who showed me how to play ‘Little Wing’ when we were kids. He’s very much an aficionado of the work.”
Reid also emphasized that James ‘Biscuit’ Rouse is also a “terrific” vocalist. “In order to revisit this, having an excellent drummer who could also sing was crucial to the whole enterprise,” he said.
Reid called Hendrix “one of first true Afro-Futurists,” citing his song “1983… (A Merman Should I Turn To Be)” from 1968’s “Electric Ladyland” album as a perfect example.
“Just the idea of how he put his things through, it’s kind of astonishing. That’s what made him so inspiring to me,” Reid said.
What wasn’t inspiring to Reid was the idea of copying Hendrix’s iconic guitar style note for note.
“It’s never occurred to me to play exactly the way he did,” he said. “That was not what his lesson was. His challenge was the same kind of challenge of a John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman or any of the great original artists – they challenged all of us: ‘Who are you?’ They asked us the question, really asked the question, ‘Who are you? This is me! Who are you?’”
Reid added: “There’s something about Jimi Hendrix that you can’t even speak of. There’s a point where, he did things with the guitar where you don’t even know what to think about it, it was so incredible – just the range from really pretty to heavy. We actually do a version of ‘Little Wing’ and it’s amazing what (his catalog) encompasses from ‘Little Wing’ to ‘Machine Gun.’ That was the breadth of his palette.”
Indeed, hearing these songs almost 50 years later makes it difficult to remember how groundbreaking and forward-looking they were at that time.
“That is the thing about Jimi Hendrix that I just keep coming back to,” Reid said. “I was too young at the time to experience him first hand as a listener; it was more like ‘Who’s this weird guy on TV with Dick Cavett?’ But that’s the part of the thing in talking about Jimi Hendrix that really is difficult for anyone who wasn’t actually there to grasp.
“With artists of the 1960s, there’s always a kind of Monday morning quarterbacking that’s going on, a kind of assessment that doesn’t really get at how seismic what these artists did at the time. A lot of times it’s by people who were sick of hearing about them, so there’s a kind of a, not contemptuous, but a ‘yeah yeah yeah’ response to them. And it really misses what the (heck) was happening when people heard ‘Are You Experienced’ or they saw ‘Monterey Pop’ with this guy smashing his guitar and setting it on fire – people’s brains were scrambled by this, and they didn’t know what to think about anything.
“Jimi Hendrix was a figure who did these kinds of performances that would rewire the whole thing, like ‘Machine Gun,’ from that second set of Band of Gypsys, is perfection. The ‘Star Spangled Banner’ (at Woodstock) perfectly encapsulated the real-time moment in American history. And that’s the thing that’s so electrifying and extraordinary about who he was.”
If You Go
Who: Vernon Reid's Band of Gypsys Revisited Band
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 31
Where: The Haunt, 702 Willow Ave., Ithaca
Cost: $25 at the door