It must be great being Domino Records. You can dance all night to Franz Ferdinand, take over the world with the Arctic Monkeys and then, rather than just laughing all the way to the bank, you can double-cross the taxman by making sure the world doesn’t miss out on the chance to hear what music should be like in the 21st Century – namely, minimalist keyboards, the distant chatter of alien robot jungle insects at midnight and just a distant breeze of what might once have been percussion.
Fusing the pop electronics of Kieran Hebden (he of Fridge and Four Tet), who also produced, with veteran Motown drummer Steve Reid, The Exchange Session Vol 2 is part two of a marathon session recorded at the Exchange in London. All tracks are live takes with no overdubs or edits, the sleeve notes proudly proclaim, and so they should: this so much more remarkable than just the result of some extended knob-twiddling in a basement production studio. Hebden’s style fuses seamlessly with the African-influenced percussion of a man who has drummed for John Coltrane, Martha and the Vandellas and Miles Davis as well as making his own name as a jazz experimentalist.
First track Hold Down the Rhythms, Hold Down the Machines is 20 minutes exactly of chilled ambience, no vocals, electronic swirls that disappear into the background, a tribal bassline that holds it down and the odd scratch that threatens to speed things up but never quite does. The result is a perfect fusion of free jazz experimentation and new century electronic minimalism that really does sound unique. Or unique to a planet on which Sun Ra owns all the nightclubs, anyway (which is one I’d catch the rocket to in a shot).
Middle track No’mie is even more fragile, starting off like the trickle of raindrops when you’re only half awake, distant sounds you can’t quite touch. It’s the perfect music for that time of the morning when you know if you can only stay awake for another hour the sun will be up, and all you need is an intermittent keyboard plink to nudge you away from dropping off. It’s gentle, tender and intimate, designed for silence and commanding of it. Vocals would ruin this, on record (where there are none) or off it: no sane muso would dare talk over it something so beautiful.
Final track We Dream Free is the pay-off of all this, a slow dawn awakening through which half-caught sounds filter in and out of your semi-consciousness, like smoke lingering in an emptying room.
Naysayers may argue that none of the tracks needs to be as long as they are (at 16 minutes and two seconds, We Dream Free is the shortest) but sounds as subtle as these need room to spread out just as a fine wine needs room to breathe. Curtailing them would make the experiment seem rushed and that’s not what it’s about nor what it needs to be; Reid and Hebden are finding themselves and each other, enjoying the journey and letting the results find their own path. Radio friendly unit shifters it’s not but that’s radio’s loss, not ours.