The word “adventurous” is thrown around a lot in experimental music circles. The sounds aren’t supposed to sound familiar, but meant to be so bold, strange and unpredictable it’s impossible to determine how they might sound, and how listeners might respond. Even the listener becomes adventurous when she engages with musicians who are making adventurous music—like an Alejandro Jodorowsky flick, nobody knows what’s going on (or what’s waiting for ’em up there at the top of the mountain). This is especially the case in the world of improvised music, where musicians often perform together for the first time, ever, in front of a live audience, or, like in the case of Norwegian improvising unit Supersilent, never talk about what they intend to play.
In 1969, when he was 25-years-old, New York City born percussionist Steve Reid spent some time in jail after refusing to sign up for the Vietnam War draft. Not only does this speak directly to Reid’s superb moral character, but it illuminates something about him as a musician: He was unwilling to abandon his ideals even if they took him to unfamiliar, and potentially terrifying, places. Before he went walked into Pennsylvania’s Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, he’d played with Martha & the Vandellas and James Brown, and after he walked out in 1971, he went to work with a stellar group of musicians, including Frank Lowe, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Olatunji, Miles Davis, Fela Kuti and Charles Tyler. On the group leader tip, Reid’s three records in the mid-1970s with the Legendary Master Brotherhood ensemble, particularly 1976’s Nova, are overlooked gems of the hard-funk/free-jazz era. And, up until his death from throat cancer in 2010, Reid continued to release noteworthy albums for the CPR, Soul Jazz and Domino labels.
Throughout his diverse music career, Reid was always one to push hard against established sonic walls. However, his greatest musical adventure didn’t begin until the final years of his life, when he started collaborating with London’s Kieran Hebden (a.k.a Four Tet). The two–Reid representing the free-jazz continuum, Hebden representing the electronic music continuum–first connected in early 2005 for gigs in Paris and London, and the shows went so swimmingly they decided to tour internationally and release a series of collaborative albums: The Exchange Session Volume One (2006), The Exchange Session Volume Two (2006), Tongues (2007) and NYC (2008).
There have been many cross-over projects between out-jazz and electronic artists (Ken Vandermark’s recent Territory Bands, for instance), but this one was unique because of Hebden’s strong orientation toward electronic dance music. For that reason, Reid and Hebden’s was the most significant collaboration of its kind. The two musician’s palette’s paired well, with Reid’s poly-rhythmic, hyper-tribal marches and ecstatic grooves, and Hebden’s bright transitions between atmospheric bliss, post-Sun Ra cosmic gliss, and angular glitch. But, refusing to settle for too long with the duo formula, at the Ornette Coleman-curated Meltown Festival at London’s Southbank Centre, June 2009, Reid and Hebden brought muscular, bomb-blowing Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson into the unit.
Live At South Bank captures the trio’s 1.3 hour improvised set, with six extended, highly adventurous jams. Reid motors relentlessly throughout, shifting between reckless, krautrock mania and colorful cymbal shimmers, while Gustafsson, as always, blows his damn brains out–raging, rampaging, head-butting and squawking like a sharp-clawed, pissed off velociraptor. In the middle of “Lyman Place,” once Gustafsson and Reid are throat-deep in a dirty groove, Hebden makes a spaceship zip across, elevating the chaos higher, and then, higher.
What’s so unique about Live At South Bank is that it’s noisy, heavy, skronky and danceable all at the same time. We need more of this. Many experimental concerts these days have become identical to classical music performances, where the audience sits quietly and rubs its collective chin (or scratches its collective head) while remaining as motionless and unexcited as possible. We need motion. We need more collaborations that unite, not just avant-jazz with electronic music, but with electronic dance music. Burial and Nate Wooley. AraabMUZIK and Vijay Iyer. And, in the ultimate Thunderdome match-up: Skrillex and Brötzmann. If this sort of collaboration happens, we’ll have Steve Reid’s adventurous legacy to thank for it.