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Steve Reid: Staying in the Rhythms

By Published: December 24, 2007

AAJ: I know what you're saying, but in defense of Wynton Marsalis, I saw his big band in 1999 at the Vittoria Jazz Festival where he was celebrating the centenary of Duke Ellington, playing the Duke Ellington songbook. Now this is Spain, and a lot of people didn't really know that much about Duke Ellington or his music and were absolutely blown away by the power and swing of the music. So I just wonder if there's not a place for that kind of thing.

SR: There's a place for it. He's an excellent musician, but he can't create anything, which means he shouldn't be put at the top as representing jazz. This is my whole point with him. And the reason that he was, was because he could play classical music.

Other guys could play classical music like [Charles] Mingus and Eric Dolphy—all these guys were capable of playing with philharmonic orchestras, and yet they weren't projected as heroes as Marsalis is. All these guys were great and they didn't get any money.

AAJ: No, sure, they should have built statues to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Mingus, Monk, John Coltrane...

SR: What makes it even worse is that you have some great musicians who are still alive like Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman and a few of us old dinosaurs still roaming the planet. But it's hard to get a recording because the system says, "You guys are old timers; we can't record you anymore.

This is something that is going to be corrected now with the changes in the music industry. This is a great time for a lot of different music to get on the menu. The world music thing is coming in now which means the rhythm is on top.

We'll have a chance to maybe acknowledge the people's musical menu without the large record companies directing it. Like in the movies the studios used to control everything, but that broke down. Now it's happening in the record business. The musicians are on top calling the shots, and the record companies have to readjust and get back into putting out creative music. And this is the answer to their revival.

Steve Reid

AAJ: Taking you back to your album Tongues (Domino Records, 2006), which you made with Kieran Hebden, and Exchange 1 (Domino Records, 2006) and Exchange 2 (Domino Records, 2006)—all the tracks are live, and there are no overdubs, no outtakes. Was that something you decided on at the very outset, or did you listen to the results and think, that'll do nicely?

SR: No. We decided that we weren't going to do retakes because if you have to do it again then something is wrong. You know on that Wynton Marsalis album, From the Plantation to the Penitentiary (Blue Note Records, 2007), they did 23 takes of the first cut! Now to me, if you have to do that and it's called jazz, then something is really wrong.

AAJ: I wanted to ask you about a couple of the songs on Tongues. The first one is the song "People Be Happy. A friend of mine who's a musician described it as sounding like Mr. and Mrs. Cuckoo getting it on inside a hybrid mechanical/electronic cuckoo clock. How would you describe it?

SR: You know, whatever turns you on is not philosophy! I'll just say I agree with him! [laughing]

AAJ: I think the point he was trying to make is that it's a very odd-sounding tune.

SR: Yeah, like most of our stuff, man, which is why we've suffered a little bit in that the system doesn't know where to put us. They don't want to put us into jazz, they don't want to put us into rock, and we're just playing some stuff that doesn't fit into any category. Domino Records has been fantastic with us, man, at standing up behind us.

AAJ: The second song I wanted to ask you about is the sixteenth century English song "Greensleeves, which in the context of the other music seems like an odd choice, and I wonder how you came to choose that tune.

SR: Well, a friend of mine sent me these little music boxes with 'Trane tunes on them, so one tune was "Geensleeves. They're very little—you can fit one in the palm of your hand and turn the little handle. And I said, "Hey Kieran, check this out. And then I played it, and he said, "Oh man, 'Greensleeves!' He says, "I'm going to try something with that! And that's how it came about.

AAJ: Of course, Coltrane recorded that song and played it quite a lot, and I wondered if it was inspired by Coltrane. But I think you've answered that one already.

SR: Yeah, this guy that sent me these little music boxes, he put all Coltrane tunes on them, "A Love Supreme, "Greensleeves. [laughing]

AAJ: What a beautiful idea. Talking of Coltrane, you grew up very close to his place. Did you see him gigging regularly?

SR: Oh yeah, I saw Coltrane over five hundred times. I was lucky. I was living in the neighborhood about three blocks from where he was living in Queens at that time. He was at 116, 60 Mexico Street in St. Albans, Queens, and so I was over there every morning. I barely made it to school. I would go over there early in the morning, you know, and stay! [laughing]

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