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Kieran Hebden & Steve Reid - The Exchange Session Vol. 2

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Artist: Kieran Hebden & Steve Reid

Album: The Exchange Session Vol. 2

Label: Domino

Review date: May. 21, 2006

The idea behind the Exchange Sessions is pretty basic: put together two artists from different realms and see what happens. In a way, it’s not that different from what Konkurrent does on their In the Fishtank series, though I don’t believe Domino plans on putting out more things like this. But I could be wrong. The two parts of the Exchange Sessions represent a day in the recording studio with Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid. Reid has made a major resurgence of late, after starting his career as a Motown drummer then playing with everyone from Coltrane to Sun Ra to Fela Kuti, recording a couple of super rare records as a bandleader in the ’70s, then more or less vanishing save for an appearance on Miles Davis’ Tutu. His collaboration with Hebden is not wholly unfounded, since Hebden appeared on his most recent album, Spirit Walk.

As with any improvised music, this is an album of moments, not of coherent structures or consistent forms. Hebden and Reid claim to have found an instant rapport and subliminal connection; Reid even goes so far as to call Hebden his musical soul mate. Whether or not this is borne out in the music is subject to some debate, though. Neither of them could truly be called “free” players - most of their own music is fairly composed - and it sometimes seems like they don’t really know what they’re doing with each other. Most of “Hold down the rhythm, hold down the machines” (a particularly apt song title) sees Reid hitting a fairly steady, unchanging beat behind Hebden’s howling electronics. At its most cacophonous, the music gets overrun by endless waves of digital squeals that seem to be little more than Hebden pushing random buttons on his laptop. You could probably argue that this is no different from what someone like Peter Brötzman or Cecil Taylor does, but that’s the big difference between acoustic and digital instruments. Without physical limits like breath or hand size, it’s very easy to descend into simple wank. And when Hebden gets overly wanky, Reid clearly doesn’t know how to respond and is left to lay down a groove. And while there are interesting moments inside that wankiness, they get drowned out by waves of indulgence.

Thankfully, there is more going on here than electronic mayhem with a human drummer. When the texture thins, these two really do have something to say. It’s sometimes hard to tell where one player ends and the other begins, because Hebden uses a lot of percussion samples and Reid (I believe) uses some kind of expanded kit. The atmospheres in “Noémie” and “We dream free” are wonderfully dark, laced with cymbal shimmers and insect sounds. Here is where Reid’s years of experience show - he seems to have no need to do anything too fancy or cluttered, while Hebden does occasionally disrupt the mood with digital squalls. Even in this freest of environments, Reid is beholden to some kind of beat, steadily pounding his kick drum even when there is no beat to articulate. That is where this album fundamentally falls short; it is trying so hard to exemplify complete freedom, but ends up being limited by a lack of freedom in the playing.

By Dan Ruccia

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