If anyone has been privy to all the nuances of the word rebirth, it is Steve Reid. A drummer since age 16, he first made his mark in Motown on the Martha Reeves and the Vandellas hit “Dancing in the Street,” and in New York as part of the Apollo Theater's house band under the direction of Quincy Jones. In 1966 Reid embarked on a two-year sabbatical to West Africa, where he played with the legendary Fela Kuti. Upon his return to the United States, he was jailed for draft evasion, but by 1970 he had still managed to smack the kit behind everyone from Sun Ra to James Brown to Jimi Hendrix.
Over the years, Reid has enjoyed a reputation as a musician's musician. But recently, thanks in part to a collaboration with Kieran Hebden (better known as glitch-hop innovator Four Tet) and a resurgence of interest in the string of experimental jazz albums he made on his own and with saxophonist Charles Tyler during the '70s, Reid is in the middle of another renaissance, the latest phase of which is Daxaar (Domino, 2008). In a sense, the project closes a circle that began back in 1966.
“It had to be done,” Reid says. “Rhythm is at the root of all music, and to me that begins in Africa. So we decided we were just going to go to Dakar [Senegal] and get some musicians together to play. I didn't even know they were the real heavyweights in Senegal until I came back.”
Consisting almost entirely of unrehearsed first takes that were recorded to tape at the home studio of Dakar-based guitarist Jimi Mbaye, the album opens with an invocation of sorts by Isa Kouyate on the harplike, multistringed kora. The sound then plunges into the psychedelic throb of the title track, followed by the gritty street funk of “Jiggy Jiggy” — a prime groove vehicle for Reid, bassist Dambel Diop, keyboardist Boris Netsvetaev, and percussionist Khadim Badji. While Mbaye and trumpeter Roger Ongolo solo, Hebden provides the sampled spice through a daisy-chained set of two Boss SP-303 Dr. Sample phrase samplers on one channel and a third SP-303 on the other, running the whole setup through a Pioneer DJ M600 mixer and playing it with his fingers.
“I don't use any sequencers when I do music with Steve,” Hebden explains. “It's all done from hand triggering the samples. With one hand I'll play the rubber pads to get the bass line, and then with the other I'll get some noises or a melody off one of the other samplers to fit with it. I also use a laptop to trigger sounds on the fly with Cool Edit [the Syntrillium version, pre-Adobe]. But everything is pretty much done with the three Dr. Samples. From the beginning, I just wanted it to feel like I was playing quite a different instrument, so it's been a whole other world for me.”
Reid agrees, citing his own drumming, which on Daxaar he played with a more wide-open approach than normal, miking only the kick, floor tom, and snare, while an overhead mic captured the band's room sound. “The basic thing is the feeling,” he says. “I'm not playing the kit in a traditional way now. I'm churning the time up from the bottom, running the bass like I want to, so I don't have to keep those old rock or jazz clichés. But the drum has to make the other musicians feel relaxed in the rhythm, and that's its main responsibility — not to show off, but just to play the groove. When I come across good musicians, there's no need for me to push my stuff out — I let them work. This is the way new things can happen.”
Home base: Lugano, Switzerland
Recording medium: analog tape
Kieran Hebden's main instruments: three Boss SP-303 Dr. Sample phrase samplers