Kieran Hebden – better known to you and me as Four Tet – is a busy lad. Not content with last year’s Everything Ecstatic LP, he’s roped in 62-year-old motown drummer Steve Reid for some extracurricular activity.
This album (the first in a series, it seems) consists of only three tracks – the last two around 15 minutes long each – and was, interestingly enough, recorded live, all in one go, with no overdubs or edits. That’s quite the ice-breaker, ne pas? A segue to end all segues, you might say.
But what of the music? The overriding impression throughout the exchange (for that is what this truly is) is that of Reid’s tribal, nomadic percussion giving Hebden licence to explore the soundscape, his accessible Four Tet persona melting away in favour of something altogether more ambient – from relatively predictable digital beeps to strange and inviting timbres.
As is probably discernible by this point, The Exchange Sessions are about as easy to digest as a rusty fish hook (with dried worm guts on it). Anyone expecting the obvious from a team that could be accurately described as a pop groove drummer and a high-charting electronist should think twice: this is the sound of two artists, a yin and yang, arriving at the destination of an experimental journey into freeform jazz. This is not the Reid of 1970s motown records, nor the Hebden of last year.
The presence of only three tracks (or, perhaps, two track dividers) points towards the LP’s implicit continuity, the delicate tapping and flow of the relatively brief Morning Prayer providing something of a way in for the listener. “This is just the beginning,” it seems to be whispering: “So give in completely or sling your hook.” It’s a fair warning, anyway.
The mammoth Soul Oscillations is more of the same, which would appear to be an inevitability given the record’s live approach. Over the course of the track’s quarter of an hour, gossamer-thin wood and ivory percussion sounds ride over a tighter kick drum heartbeat, the affair layered further still with Hebden’s crescendoes and decrescendoes.
The climactic Electricity And Drum Will Change Your Mind brings in the background wailing of various eastern wind instruments before the proceedings descend to cough-and-you’ll-miss-it volume levels and a less-is-more mindset. Jamie Cullum this is not.
The offspring of Reid and Hebden’s affair is, then, something of a problem child, unwilling to be nice to either parent’s friends and deliberately spurning any kind of extended family expectation. If freeform jazz is your bag, the rewards on offer here are more than tempting enough to warrant your interest. Those less taken with soundscaping need not apply: this is the musical equivalent of eating blowfish.