Collaboration has a way of bridging differences between artists and genres, finding links between styles that no one could have known were ever there, but it’s rare that collaboration works so seamlessly, so fluidly. Here, in the second volume of The Exchange Sessions, the inherently cerebral tones of Kieran Hebden’s laptop do not so much combine with Steve Reid’s fevered, physical drumming as they seem to flow from the same source. It is as if both musicians have tapped into a single communal memory of music, discovering it as they play with each flurry of notes and rhythms.
The two players are well known in their separate disciplines, and each bring their distinctive sensibilities to the project. Hebden has worked mostly alone in the past under the Four Tet name, building fluent, spirit-filled melodies out of the blips and tones of his computer. Reid, by contrast, has excelled primarily within ensembles, beginning with Martha and the Vandellas, and moving to collaborate with jazz, afro-beat and funk greats including John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Fela Kuti and James Brown. The three long pieces included here tip references to all these genres — electronics, jazz, afro-beat, rock and funk — while remaining fundamentally untethered. It is as if Hebden and Reid have traveled upstream to the source of all genres, a place where playful electro-melodies tumble over minimalist classical pools, where the hard thump of rock beats break jazz swirls into cascades and eddies.
The three tracks here are completely improvised, the two players simply starting to play without even the most minimal sketches of where they’re going or what the songs will be. The initial cut, “Hold Down The Rhythms, Hold Down The Machines” starts with a series of faint, vibrating sounds — Hebden most likely — as Reid seems almost audibly to listen, think and plot out a response. About a minute in, you begin to hear Reid in the periphery, fills tumultuous but muted, like faraway thunder. They build gradually, moving from the toms to cymbals, as the electronics become more distorted, louder and somehow more playful. There’s a sense of restrained euphoria here, the synthesized tones pulsing with thought and feeling, the drums wild with cymbal slashes and bass drum thumps, but the whole thing muted and reserved.
“Noemie”, up second, diverges sharply from the first cut’s rigor and into more exotic and sensual territory. An oriental flute snakes through atmospheric haze, the jangle of bells rising and receding in the mix. Cymbal rolls blossom and disappear. Plinks of malleted percussion merge into shifting, mesmeric patterns. The sound is foreign, but from where? Shades of Asia, the Middle East and Africa all float by with wonderful ease and casual mystery. Layers of sound build in complex overlays, whistles, shivers, bongs and glitches co-existing in a musical peaceable kingdom.
The disc closes with “We Dream Free”, its most fully realized cut. Delicate breezes flow through the piece, tangling windchime-y percussion with buoyant shards of keyboard melody. The drums are treble-heavy meshes of snare and cymbal, rhythms constructed around air and looming spaces that allow the sounds to breathe.
Simple description of sounds and tones, though, misses the point. There’s a joy in these cuts that can’t be denied. For proof, check the light-handedly wonderful, extended drum solo around the 9:30 mark of “We Dream Free”, on its face a dialogue between tom tom and cymbal but in its heart an ecstatic communion with the universe. Hebden and Reid have locked onto some sort of transmission from a higher consciousness here, and if you listen hard enough, you can feel it right along with them.