Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid
The Exchange Session Vol. 1
ou could have guessed it would happen. Kieran Hebden's electronic work, especially as Four Tet, often gets the lazy "organic" tag. Couple that with his interest in experimentation, and he's a prime candidate for live work with a drummer. Tracks like "Sun Drums and Soil" from last year's Everything Ecstatic demonstrate his interest not only in jazz melodies, but also in its percussion stylings. Steve Reid has done his most acclaimed work as an avant-garde jazz drummer, but he's not only been Coltrane's percussionist, having spent time in Afrobeat and (importantly but often forgotten) as a Motown drummer, starting with Martha and the Vandellas as a teenager. Hebden and Reid were primed to work out a personal intersection of experimental jazz and electronics.
Both artists appear to have taken easily to their collaborative work (Hebden adds in the album's notes that it is "one of the most natural musical connections that [Hebden] has ever felt with anyone"). That sort of comfort works to the benefit of The Exchange Session Vol. 1, which was recorded live nearly a year ago. Neither artist tries to force anything, and the three tracks shift and flow easily. Reid sounds content to stay in the background, rarely demanding attention, yet his drumming is complex and responsive.
"Morning Prayer" gives the disc a fitting start, as the artists feel their interaction out. Hebden gradually builds his electronics to a crescendo in line with both his and Reid's traditions. The track uses all of its nearly seven minutes not only to make its own statement, but also to signal what this collaboration will bring. "Exchange," in this instance, refers not only to the studio that housed the recordings but also to the give-and-take between the artists. Reid held back for much of the opening, but both he and Hebden realize midway through "Soul Oscillations" that he needs to shine a bit, and he does so without self-assertion, shifting the 1-and-3 timekeeping duties to his cymbal while resisting the hints of swing on his toms. Hebden merely fills out the atmosphere with basic bleeps, letting Reid examine a simple pattern before adding a synthetic horn sound. At the halfway point, the two artists become looser in their interaction, less reliant on each other, but also less reserved, resulting in a more open track, giving Reid the opportunity to leave the beat completely behind.
The album achieves a great deal of its success from the relaxed collaboration, but it does suffer from it, as well. Reid and Hebden interact so casually that they don't find the friction to really propel great improvisational music. The resulting tracks show more concern for the production of art than for the ignition of an explosion (Hebden's sporadic atonality sounding function, but neither pro- nor transgressive). The album's nearly perfectly executed, but that works both for and against it—it's hard to create an experimental masterpiece without providing the feeling of risk. When the album reaches its most extreme, on "Electricity and Drum Will Change Your Mind," it's because each artist is making his own explorations, not because they're challenging or resisting each other. The Exchange Session Vol. 1 works best when taken as a descriptor of things to come, even if it is fully enjoyable in itself. Reid and Hebden might have a collaborative monstrosity ahead of them, and that's the one that will be exciting to hear.