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Steve Reid: Staying in the Rhythms

By Published: December 24, 2007
Steve Reid

AAJ: What I notice about the album, particularly on the title track and "Dabronxaar, is a definite vibe of Miles Davis, circa Bitches Brew(Columbia Records, 1970), and most notably in the trumpet playing of Roger Ongolo. Was that a conscious thing to get that kind of vibe, or did it just turn out like that?

SR: No, it wasn't a conscious thing. This particular group is to me like a magic band. It's like Weather Report, Mahavishnu, Miles—all the things that I grew up with and liked. It all comes out. That's why you hear these different influences. Sometimes you can hear some Temptations stuff; there's Motown in it. It's all my influences that have gone into it.

AAJ: It's a tight-sounding group.

At this stage of my playing, I just try to encourage the other players I'm playing with. I don't need to play all over the top of them. I've never liked to do that. I always like to work out the group concept. We don't take one solo after another—that's the old jazz concept. We try to let the band improvise together. That's basically what we do, working around the same line from instrument to instrument.

AAJ: That's quite a Joe Zawinul concept: Everybody solos and nobody solos.

SR: Well that's how jazz began with Dixieland and everything. Everybody used to solo together. Then it got to the stage where it was just solo, solo, solo, solo, solo, head and out, you know?—something that got very set.

AAJ: Your connection with Africa, as you mentioned, goes back many, many years to the mid-sixties when you spent a few years out there. What took you out there in the first place?

SR: I decided to find out about the origin of the drum. I went all over. Kinshasa, I lived there. I lived in Accra. I lived in Lagos. And I was playing with different Hi Life bands including Fela. And I was playing with this very heavy master drummer over there called Guy Warren.

AAJ: What was it like working with Fela Kuti?

SR: This was before Africa '70 [Kuti's band], before he exploded on the music scene. He was mixing the James Brown groove with the African side at that point. It was a great experience, man!

AAJ: Was Tony Allen drumming with Fela at that time?

SR: Not at that time. This was before.

AAJ: Brian Eno called Tony Allen perhaps the greatest drummer who ever lived, which is a pretty big title to bestow on somebody. But I wondered if you had your own candidate for that title?

SR: No, I don't. All the guys are excellent and they are all different. I like all the guys who have their own voice—that's my thing.

AAJ: You mentioned Guy Warren, a fairly legendary drumming figure. What did you learn, or what did you pick up from him?

SR: How to make people dance. That's the way I came up—playing for dances. And when I went over there, it was the same thing only with different rhythms. So it was how to make people dance with different rhythms other than rhythm-and-blues or a rock rhythm or something.

AAJ: Guy Warren came over to America and mixed it up with Monk and Lester Young, Charlie Parker and so on. And drummer Max Roach said years later, "Guy Warren was so far ahead of what we were all doing. Do you know what he meant by that? Can you relate to that comment?

SR: Yeah. You got to remember when Max said that, it was when jazz was in this heavy post-bebop thing, and all the jazz drummers were staying in the jazz thing with the exception of maybe Art Blakey who was delving deep into the Africana experience. And then later Max did it with the Freedom Now Suite (Candid Records, 1960), and this is what Max was talking about—most of the drummers being trapped inside this jazz rhythm. There weren't many breakouts. Tony Williams was one of the few that escaped... and I've managed to escape![laughing]

align=center>Steve Reid

Steve Reid with Kieran Hebden

AAJ: Max Roach passed away there very recently. How do you relate to Roach because he was more than just a drummer, wasn't he?

SR: Yeah, he was representing the black experience which was what he was and what I am. You do what you are. He always kept the African thing up front, and I liked the point in his particular music that he didn't usually use a keyboard. So this opened the thing up rhythmically. That kind of frees things up, unless you got the right keyboard player. Remember the old joke, "Shoot the pianist! [laughing]

AAJ: Going back to Fela Kuti for a minute, when he came to America at the end of the sixties, he became more politicized and returned having absorbed more of the jazz and more of the James Brown soul thing. And in a way your return to America from Africa was not too dissimilar, was it?

SR: No, it wasn't too dissimilar. On my return from Africa, I went to jail.

AAJ: For refusing to fight in Vietnam. Do you mind retelling that episode in your life?

SR: No. I wear it like a badge, man. I stood up for my people. I didn't want to go and fight no war, and them people wasn't hurting us. I'm proud that I was part of the movement. The Unites States is the only country that doesn't have a draft, and the reason is 'cause a hundred thousand guys like me went and clogged up the jails. So they had to pull that system down and make it voluntary. If you wanted to go and fight, if you wanted to be Rambo, it was your choice.

I was from a real ghetto. I was in gangs and all that, so the experience didn't break me or crack me. It made me stronger. I played music while I was in there. I stayed in touch, and miraculously, it was during the anti-war movement. Joan Baez arranged for the Master Brotherhood, a group I used to hang out with and play with, and [we] recorded a couple of things together. Well, she arranged for them to come up to the jail and play.

We had the whole band in there, even at one time. I just kept on swimming, man, you know? Because you gotta do what you gotta do, and do what you want to do. That's what my daddy taught me, and so that's stood me well in life.

You've gotta give, man, you've gotta have a loving feeling. I believe all the guys playing this music, we're blessed. It's a special thing, and there should be nothing but love coming from us. This is what we can do; this is the contribution we can make. There's no blood on the jazz music.

With Fela, you know, it's very dangerous for a musician to be political. They were always asking Coltrane to talk about Vietnam, and he said no, let me talk about love and peace, you know, and the love supreme. In politics you have to have one qualification: You have to be a liar. So I try to stay out of the whole area because then you're required to fulfill the qualifications of a politician. [laughing]

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