The history of modern music is littered with unlikely collaborations. These type of pairings can be propitious or not, but they are never boring. As these things go, the team of Steve Reid and Kieran Hebden is perhaps nowhere near as surprising as, say, the KLF and Tammy Wynette, but it’s still pretty unusual. That it has turned out to be such a profitable pairing is no real surprise, however. While it was somewhat unlikely on the face of it that a jazz legend such as Reid would ever have occasion to meet an electronic impresario like Hebden in the first place, once they did meet the commonalities between their eclectic musical philosophies made a positive outcome almost inevitable.
Reid and Hebden’s collaboration came to fruition earlier this year with the release of the first two volumes of The Exchange Sessions (no word yet on whether more volumes will follow). These two discs almost single-handedly restored my faith in the notion of free jazz—Reid and Hebden’s entirely improvised compositions contain a power and authority which belies their spontaneous origins. Both musicians seemed to instinctively understand their partner to such an extent that the boundaries between their instruments began to warp, creating a novel sonic playground where the liminal distinctions of analog and digital seemed almost comically inadequate to describe the proceedings.
Spirit Walk is ostensibly credited to the Steve Reid Ensemble, but the disc serves a far more important role as a companion piece to Reid and Hebden’s recent collaborations. The album is much more of a traditional combo piece than the free-for-all of The Exchange Sessions, although the same anarchic spirit does sneak in during a few key tracks. The ensemble consists of eight musicians, although all do not feature on every track. Hebden is conspicuous for fitting in so well—although there are places where, in the context of a more conventional jazz setting, his electronic filigrees seem awkward, for the most part he acquits himself well. And, tellingly, the one track where his contributions seem most out of place is “Bridget”, a mid-tempo saunter that generally fails to engage on any level.
But man, when this album hits it really hits. The centerpiece is the 15-minute-long “Drum Story”, a duet between Reid and Hebden over which Reid himself intones a long, slightly stream-of-consciousness rant on the history of rhythm and the drum, from the origins of African percussion through the intertwining histories of the African diaspora and American rhythmic evolution. In the drum space, there is no place”, he intones, “All things are equal among all kinds of people”. Stylistically, it’s the closest to Hebden and Reid’s prior work, but Reid’s vocal puts it over the top as a truly classic cut.
The specter of John Coltrane hangs over the album as well. Coltrane was one of Reid’s earliest supporters, encouraging the young drummer and even paying his rent at times during his early career. There are four saxophone players credited on Spirit Walk, and it’s telling that at their best the quartet barely manage to evoke ‘Trane’s presence. “For Coltrane” is mellow, serving as much to highlight Boris Netsvetaev’s Herbie Hancock-influenced funk organ as any of the saxophonists, but the real treat is “Lions of Judah”. All four sax players cut loose, and the complementary tones of their instruments create a harmonic cacophony that really packs a punch. Chuck Henderson is fabulous, his lyrical and restrained playing serving as a needed counterpoint to Tony Bevan’s demoniacal bass sax. There are many points throughout the piece where the combined power of the assembled saxophones becomes almost mystical in intensity, to the point where you almost wonder if Hebden is doctoring the sound in some way. But I don’t think he is.
The album finishes with “Unity”, which appears to be a totally improvised piece featuring the entire ensemble. John Edwards (certainly not the former Democratic Senator?) is a standout with his playful bass, but Hebden also impresses with the skillful manipulation of sound that straddles the line between harmony and percussion, and serves as an instructive counterpoint for both the rhythm section and the soloists. While Spirit Walk is nowhere near as essential an experience as The Exchange Sessions, the album does serve as a compelling extension of Reid and Hebden’s mutually beneficial relationship. While the somewhat more sedate post-bop format may seem at times constrictive, the moments that shine are the moments when the massed musicians are best able to follow their instincts through the proverbial rabbit holes. Here’s hoping that the collaboration between Reid and Hebden continues forward for quite some time, because this album is proof positive that they have only begun to answer the possibilities raised by their auspicious pairing.