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Steve Reid: Staying in the Rhythms

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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.
Steve Reid A sell-out crowd and a standing ovation at the London Jazz Festival concert to launch Daxaar (Domino Records, 2007) is a sure sign that veteran drummer Steve Reid is enjoying something of an Indian summer. Since teaming up with electronics improviser Kieran Hebden in 2006, Domino Records has released three albums of their cutting-edge collaborations, and Steve Reid has reached a whole new audience with his African-inspired, jazz improvisations.

In a sense, Reid and Hebden are revisiting the spirit of the improvised jazz duos of the 1960s and 1970s, such as John Coltrane and Rashid Ali, or Sun Ra and Walt Dickerson, and their avant-garde music for the 2000s is no place for the fainthearted.

Daxaar, on the other hand, is a hybrid of western and African textures and rhythms recorded in Senegal, and quite unlike Reid's more out-there collaborations with Hebden. It is a distillation of the music that has influenced him most profoundly, and its infectious grooves are a joy to listen to.

And thanks to Soul Jazz Records, an important part of Steve Reid's back catalog from the 1970s is available after decades in hibernation. This genial drummer, who made his way by cargo boat to Africa over forty years ago to get into the rhythms, playing there with Guy Warren and Fela Kuti, has also held down the groove for James Brown and Sun Ra in a most colorful career.

Today, he is going stronger than ever, still striving, always searching, and always staying in the rhythms.

AAJ contributor Ian Patterson spoke with Reid in Lugano, Switzerland, by phone.

All About Jazz: Steve, you've brought out a couple of albums this year in collaboration with Kieran Hebden, whom you've been working with closely this last couple of years. How did you two first hook up?

Steve Reid: A French promoter by the name of Antoine Rajon had the idea to put Kieran and myself together in a special one-off in the Paris Jazz Centre. We'd met about a month before in London when I was up there with my jazz group, so we decided to do it, and Paris was the first time we played together. It was the day the Pope had died. He died while we were sound checking. So when it came out so good, we just decided to keep going.

AAJ: That must have been papal inspiration.

SR: [laughing] We are two different generations of music and music history, so it's quite exciting—Kieran representing the younger generation and me bringing the old-school flavor into the mix.

AAJ: How would you describe the nature of the musical idiom in which you two communicate?

SR: Well, it seems that now in the music business one factor seems to be going out of it and that is improvisation. And this is mainly what we are doing, but we have certain little guidelines within ourselves that we use as signposts. It changes every time; we never play the same shit twice. I like the stuff I'm doing with Kieran because he's the first electronics guy, other than Sun Ra and a few other earlier guys, that moved electronics into other instruments. He's made it into a real instrument, and so he can play with other instruments, and that's why I was really interested in the stuff he's doing.

AAJ: So do you see similarities between what Kieran's doing and what Sun Ra did for many years?

Steve Reid

SR: Oh yeah, yeah. He's connected to that whole history. His father was an avid jazz fan and he came up hearing all these records—you know, Sun Ra live and everything. He has that history; he was just never actually able to play with the guys who he's been hearing on these records, so when I came along it was a great opportunity.

Unfortunately, what they call jazz, which is really improvisation, is going through a metamorphosis now, and part of it is because, as in life, extremes took over the music for a while, as they took over the religions. So you had the extreme on one hand of avant-garde without rhythm, and then you had the other extreme of something, maybe like bebop, and the stuff in the middle is really called jazz because jazz is always on the avant-garde of things. But it's the only music which speaks of freedom.

People used to risk their lives over here in Europe during the war to go down and sit in some basement and hear some little radio broadcast some jazz or an illegal record or something. So this music really represents a lot to people, although it will never be popular like Madonna or Stevie Wonder. So when the extremes take over the music, the musicianship goes down. There's a dip in the musicianship of the younger jazz musicians because, for one thing, money is available now. Money wasn't available when I was coming through, and now they're going for the money. But what happens is the music suffers, the creative quality of the music disappears.

I played in the avant-garde with Charles Tyler and Arthur Blythe. I played in Trane's house with him and stuff, and those guys, including Ornette Coleman and Alvin [Tyler], could play any music but decided that they wanted to play this particular thing. The younger guys coming into the avant-garde, they just figured it was about screaming and not being able to play a tune—because the rhythm went out of the music, man, and once the rhythm goes out of the music, you lose it. And this is what happened with the jazz in particular. And now that's coming back.

But the system has put Wynton Marsalis up at the top, and he's playing shit that was played thirty, forty years ago. And this is really holding the music back because we don't have any creative leaders anymore.


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