Guitarist and composer Eugene Grey, in addition to a long-thriving solo career, has played with some of the most famous bands in Jamaican history – from Toots and the Maytals to Burning Spear. Classically trained, Grey has evolved his music as his knowledge has grown, and now he is trying to the same thing for reggae. His new album, Diversity, hints at Grey’s attempt to move reggae forward in the same way Quincy Jones added sophistication to R&B and Funk. Grey talked to Caribbean Journal about the new album, his experience with Burning Spear, and his vision for the future of reggae.
Talk about your new album, Diversity.
It’s a long time coming. It’s a double-CD set, with 10 instrumental, 10 vocal tracks. Except for the song, “Reward,” most are compositions or rearrangements. “Wheel O Matilda” is a folklore song that we grew up with, and we re-harmonized it.
How has your music changed over the years?
As I have grown as a musician, the music has changed. Each of my CD’s is a little different – as I evolve, I try to put that evolution into a new CD. It speaks for itself, I think.
What was your experience like with Burning Spear?
I had a ball with Burning Spear. We were an amazing side – we had fun at sound checks, because we would take the music and then just expand it and experiment. Sometimes [Rodney] would come in and say, “What’s that? I recognize that, but really, we have a way to do this.” But then he would fall in love with it himself. And then he’d allow it. That gave the band the freedom so that we when we took the stage, we played with authority and we had fun. We would take all the 15-hour bus rides and the fatigue just for that one hour, and just have fun. It’s a high.
How has Jamaican music changed? It has always been so intertwined with culture and politics.
As a people, especially the colloquial mass of the Jamaican people, the only voice they had to voice their frustration was through the arts, through music. So originally, reggae had that as a part of its foundation, the people that it came from. And the music has evolved of course. It has become world-class music. Now we have dance hall, all of that. I’m a jazz player – I play jazz and classical. New forms always come out of old forms – but what I wish for dance hall is that as the years go by they will eventually get their thing a little more sophisticated, just like every other form of art, and take its place. So the music has evolved and I’m curious to see what’s going to come up next. Also, what I like is that you have other cultures who have adopted reggae, and are putting their cultural interpretation on it and that makes it so unique. I’ve spent a lot of time in South America, I go to Argentina a lot. I was beautifully surprised how the musicians revere the music and the fervor that they really embrace it with.
What are you working on now?
I started working on some other stuff. I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag yet, but as I grew up musically, I tried to speak my language as clearly as possible. I studied classical music, and I use all the different ingredients – we have classical Jazz, poly-rhythms, polytonality and try to incorporate it back into reggae. This new album, a little bit of that is there. It’s written in different time signatures. The reason I’m doing this is that, like anything, the natural progression of the universe is the law of perpetual motion – things have to move. I spent 26 years of my early life in Jamaica, so I’m part of the earth of reggae and the evolution. Being in an international setting like America, it also gives me a different perspective so I’m using the knowledge I get here. It’s like cooking – there are different ingredients. I’m putting in all the different polyrhythms, from classical to cultures in south America and incorporating it. Because I can do it, and I think if you can you should. I’m on a path similar to what Quincy Jones did for rhythm and blues and funk. I’m using that same kind of concept and knowledge.
What kind of change are you talking about?
I’m using that same type of concept and knowledge [as Jones]. I want to bring Reggae music up that level – I studied European classical music, and those guys were thinkers – and they became musical scientists. I’m doing my contribution to see if we can get Reggae on that path. So maybe a few years ahead, when kids go for a degree in music they have to pass through those principles. And I’ve already helped to lay down some of those foundations, theoretically, and show that the capacity exists for those things to happen.