Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, you probably heard at least some of the praise aimed at Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid’s ongoing collaboration. If at first the match-up seemed unlikely, it has in a very short span of time become a blessedly familiar institution: two talented and uncompromising musicians brought together despite significant differences in their working idioms. Hebden is the electronic maestro behind Four Tet, and Reid is one of the most storied drummers in the history of R&B and jazz — I don’t know how they got together, but I’m sure glad that they did. 2006 saw the release of no less than three discs from this dynamic duo: two volumes in the co-billed Exchange Sessions series, as well as the Steve Reid Ensemble’s Spirit Walk, prominently featuring Hebden’s contributions. The Exchange Sessions were, together, my favorite recording of 2006, so I anticipated the release of Tongues with no small amount of glee.
There is a good reason this is not billed as the third volume of The Exchange Sessions. As wild and boisterous as those discs were, there was still something tentative about them. Those recordings were the result of two veteran musicians’ initial improvisations, whereas Tongues captures a much more assured picture of the duo, giving us a snapshot of their confident rapport, the result of many long months of touring and recording. The Exchange Sessions were aptly titled, in that they represented the initial exchange of communication between the two men. Tongues gives us the duo in their full flower, having mastered each others’ languages and moved past any lingering reticence.
It would probably be pushing matters to call the album “focused” — it is, after all, still essentially free jazz we’re talking about here. The results, while certainly more tightly packed, are still completely improvised. There are a few familiar tunes scattered throughout — “Greensleeves”, for instance, shows up in a strangely warped manner on the track of the same name — but Hebden and Reid are still working without any preconceived framework. One definite advancement which Tongues represents over their previous collaborations is the fact that their advanced rapport allows for a much more nuanced awareness of melody than is often the case when dealing with free jazz. A track like “Our Time” is as hauntingly melodic as any of Hebden’s more premeditated solo material. One of the factors that sets Hebden apart from the majority of his peers in the electronic music world is his unabashed proclivity for gentle, almost rustic and defiantly organic melodic constructions; in this regard his early Four Tet recordings remain some of the most influential electronic recordings of the decade. A good partnership succeeds by bringing forward the best qualities of both parties, and the confidence with which both Hebden and Reid have acceded to the others’ proclivities is a testament to their skill.
Tongues is a record of surpassing depth and ingenuity. The impurities present in The Exchange Sessions have been filtered out, leaving in their place a more perfectly distilled picture of two musicians at the prime of their powers. Their improvisational give-and-take takes place in the context of a firm mutual understanding of structure and progression, the likes of which creates the illusion of premeditation, as on excellently crafted tracks such as “Brain” and “Mirrors”. As with most free jazz exercises, the album has its highs and lows, and is by definition probably not everyone’s cup of tea. But for those with the patience and a curious ear, Tongues is the first truly indispensable release of 2007.