When an old star teams up with a young upstart, the question’s always the same: What are they angling for? Is the former hunting for new fans, or is the latter trying to rack up some quick historical cred? When it comes to the new collaboration between young, ecstatic electronic composer Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet) and accomplished cosmic jazz drummer Steve Reid, it’s best to get over it and count your blessings.
Like two inmates hell-bent on jumping the lead-lined walls of the usual, these musicians of different pedigrees but equal intensity have joined forces to release two albums of live improvisation, The Exchange Sessions Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. Against the propulsive drums Reid has used to power Sun Ra’s Arkestra and a host of other jazz notables, Hebden zaps his heightened pop sensibility through several samplers, twisting and building basic sounds into whole arrangements. “We’re both interested in doing something unique,” Hebden explains, “and doing it with confidence and passion and love, and believing in the power of it.”
In other words, this partnership is a shrewd way for both to drive their music somewhere new. The first time he saw Reid and his ensemble perform at the London Jazz Festival, Hebden relates, “There were tables and chairs set out and people were sitting, and he was playing this ferocious rhythmic music.” Hebden invited him back to play a club date in a lineup including techno maven Ellen Allien and hip hip-hopper Beans. “Steve came on in the middle of all this at half past twelve or something on a Saturday and played his music, and the crowd went mad,” Hebden recalls. “That was a really, really exciting moment, to see him in a completely different context.”
To the benefit of new generations of music fans, Reid, now living in Switzerland, has never retired and is still spreading the musical knowledge he’s amassed over forty years of performance. As a teenager in the Bronx, Reid was a session drummer at Motown and played in the Apollo house band, where he backed James Brown. He hung out with John Coltrane and played with Fela Kuti while traveling in Africa, before moving on to stints with Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman before releasing several albums of his own in the ’70s.
Charged by the political struggles of the era (he was jailed for two years as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War) and motivated by spirituality, Reid forged his musical sensibility at a time when, to Hebden’s ear, jazz musicians didn’t bother with politeness and made “amazingly powerful music that’s strong and bold at the same time as being lush and beautiful.”
A similar description easily fits Hebden’s music as Four Tet. While exploring different influences on every outing, this avid record collector’s solo music manages to be catchy and emotional, yet technically complex. Though he’s always improvised live, performing with Reid has driven his music into new territory. “He can play one drum and get ten different sounds out of it,” Hebden says. “I’m used to programming beats where every time the snare drum comes back in it sounds the same, so working with a live drummer for a change is quite a different mentality.”
The two fuse Reid’s free jazz mentality and Hebden’s club savvy in a vibrating musical interchange — a truly cosmic experience. “I want people to focus on the intensity of what we’re doing,” Hebden insists. “I like it when music’s presented in a confident, outgoing way that says to people, ‘This is music, and you have to enjoy it, and it’s a powerful thing.'”