The assumption, of course, is that there is something revolutionary contained in the simple act of forcing two diverse musical talents to perform together. We’re meant to sit in wait in rapt anticipation as the fireworks explode and musical history is made. We’re meant to wonder at the genius who brought such distant visionaries together. We imagine why we hadn’t thought of it sooner. Labels such as Domino and Konkurrent (with its “In the Fishtank” series) have made it their business to arrange these seemingly impromptu experiments. So while we’re ogling at these “musical soul-mates,” we should remember that the “improvisation” on Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid’s The Exchange Session Vol. 1 stretches no further than the music on the disc. Everything else is smoke and mirrors.
In this case, though, the pair’s impressive discography makes it easy to step off the soap box. The sixty-two-year-old Reid packs a resume worthy of a man twice his age. As a percussionist, he’s worked with Martha and the Vandellas, James Brown, Miles Davis and Fela Kuti, among others. The cat was even jamming over at John Coltrane’s house before he made it out of high school. Reid is truly the elder in the pairing — his drumming is saturated with fifty years of jazz, funk, soul, African polyrhythms and rock explorations.
Hebden, on the other hand, brings to the pairing a fresh-faced take on electronica. In his previous band, Fridge, and now as a solo artist under the name Four Tet, Hebden has given weight and pathos to a cold sampling aesthetic, transforming the musical detritus of the last few decades into coherent, emotive, beat-heavy soundscapes. Four Tet can be foreboding (“My Angel Rocks Back and Forth” from 2003’s Rounds) or jubilant (“Smile Around the Face” from 2005’s Everything Ecstatic), but never predictable.
Together, Reid and Hebden weave engaging tales without ever managing the transcendent spontaneity these kinds of collaborations sell themselves on. Opener “Morning Prayer” is a scary story for the digital campfire with Reid and Hebden building bubbling, anxious melodies over a single oscillating synth tone. Unfortunately, with the entire album recorded live without any overdubs, things rarely stray from the mood of the opening tune. Hebden provides a bit of sonic violence on “Electricity and Drum Will Change Your Mind” (courtesy of the same horn loop sampled on 2003’s “Unspoken”), and Reid’s restless sticks get particularly antsy on “Soul Oscillations.” But what seemed excitingly avant-garde on the first track can seem pat and predictable thirty minutes later.
Still, with the second volume set to drop in early June, Reid and Hebden have the opportunity to show a different side of themselves, and this album is certainly not without its pleasures. Musical collaborations — be they pop, jazz, or rock-based — always have potential, but they are rarely revolutionary. The Exchange Session Vol. 1 is no different, but it is certainly more than a collector’s item.
Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid on Domino’s Web site (streaming audio)Domino Records Web site