Free improvisation and the electronic production of sound aren’t as odd a couple as some might have you believe. Though the concept of creating music in the moment of performance without pre-determined structure has deeper roots in the jazz tradition, there’s currently more than enough history of music freely improvised by folks with sequencers, effects pedals, and mixing boards to rival the output of cats with saxophones, trumpets, and pianos. Even so, rarely the twain shall meet: bulletin boards and websites continue to hotly debate the merits of one approach at the other’s expense, with only a select few embracing and understanding the role each has played in the overall continuum of freely improvised music.
Such complications make what Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid have achieved on The Exchange Session Vol. 1 that much more intriguing, if not downright brilliant. It came as curiosity-arousing news for fans of his work as Four Tet that Hebden would be contributing his electronics to Reid’s ensemble on 2005’s Soul Jazz release, Spirit Walk, but also caused plenty of speculation as to how his sound would integrate into an otherwise standard jazz lineup. The results were somewhat inconsistent, making it difficult to know what to expect from a proper duo session—surely not more of the noisy beatnik ramblings offered on that disc’s lone performance by Hebden and Reid without the ensemble’s accompaniment?
On these three lengthy pieces, the two musicians very much meet at a stylistic middle ground, but no amount of imagination could prepare a listener for how well it actually works. Hebden sounds as if he relishes the freedom he’s afforded by someone else taking sole responsibility for the rhythmic aspects of the music, expertly implying an orchestra’s worth of instrumental tones over the course of the disc. As for Reid, the closest comparison to his drumming style is his contemporary Rashied Ali, whose pulsating, expansive approach to timekeeping propelled John Coltrane’s later groups to glorious heights. Reid has employed a similar methodology in his work over the years as both a bandleader and in collaborations with Miles Davis, Fela Kuti, and Sun Ra (talk about a trifecta of former associates)—and what he offers up here is no exception.
The three tracks move from shortest to longest, as if the duo found it had more to say each time the tapes began to roll, no edits or overdubs required. On “Morning Prayer”, Hebden approximates a chorus of flutes and double-reeds, slowly adding layers of drones and electronic noise in a gradual shift from organic to alien, while Reid keeps it all afloat on a wash of spiritual jazz percussion. “Soul Oscillations” extends the vaguely Eastern tonalities, with Reid mixing a hypnotic drum pattern with African thumb piano while Hebden loops a harmonium-tinged line around it—and the results are as capable of inducing a trance as a cyborg Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Finally, the shimmering vibraphone loops that commence “Electricity and Drum Will Change Your Mind” gradually lose form, as Hebden chops them up to allow room for static and distant muezzin-like saxophone samples to slip through; over its more than 15-minute duration, the music gains and discharges momentum until finally evaporating into the ether with spectral echoes of electronic tones and authentic cymbals and bells.
There’s a serenity at work in much of this music that also exists in the best of what has come to be known as electro-acoustic improvisation, but Hebden and Reid offer a bit more traditional melody and rhythm than one will find in the music of, say, Keith Rowe or Toshimaru Nakamura; here, electronic “noise”, like a good expletive, is used for emphasis instead of a modus operandi. Which returns the focus to just what a remarkable feat The Exchange Session Vol. 1 is—in just under 40 minutes, Hebden and Reid offer one of the most thrilling documents of real-time improvisation you’re likely to hear this year, regardless of instrumentation or imposed micro-genre. So while it’s arguable that electricity and drum has been changing minds since the advent of rock and roll, this unlikely duo proves that it doesn’t need the attendant electric guitars and posturing to get the job done.