I'm not one for using sports analogies, yet when I think about the role played by the drummer in most bands, it's hard not to think of the equally vital, but unnoticed until they make a mistake position, of goalkeeper in soccer or goalie in hockey. Situated in behind the rest of the team (um sorry, band) the drummer is seemingly off in his own little world. Like goalies they are often seen as individuals in what is otherwise considered a joint effort, and usually allowances are made for their eccentricities.
If a drummer (or a goalie) does something that's just a little off, people will shrug and say, well he or she is the drummer, and somehow that is considered an adequate explanation for everything from afternoon naps to seeing how high a television set will bounce when chucked from a fourteenth floor hotel room window. It's rare for a goalie, in soccer especially, to obtain the status or stardom of their team mates on the front lines; the glamour after all comes from scoring goals not in stopping them. The same holds true for drummers, and aside from the occasional solo that's tossed their way during a live gig, the majority toil away in relative anonymity while the lead singer and guitar players attract all the attention.
Of course there have been exceptions over the years both in sports and in music, as occasionally goalies – more often in hockey on this continent than soccer – and drummers will step out of the shadows and into the limelight. Those that do are either possessed of a talent so singular that's it impossible to ignore or through sheer force of personality forge an indelible impression on all who observe them. There are also those very rare individuals whose combination of talent and charisma ensure that they not only get their share of the spotlight, but they are also considered leading lights of their profession.
In the world of music they are usually the drummers who have been willing to serve their time playing in bands supporting others as a time of apprenticeship before they start carving out their own niche. Steve Reid began his professional career behind the drum kit at the age of nineteen when, as part of Quincy Jones' house band at The Apollo Theatre in Harlem New York, he appeared on his first recording, Martha & the Vandellas' 1964 hit "Dancing In The Streets" for Motown Records. At the time he was working his way through collage playing jazz gigs six days a week, and graduated in 1965 with a B.A.
After graduation, Steve followed in the footsteps of the man he refers to as his first inspiration, Art Blakey, and travelled to Africa. For three years he continued his apprenticeship in music, travelling around West Africa performing and learning from musicians in Ghana, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Senegal, the Congo, and Egypt. The seventy-five dollars he paid as his passage aboard a tramp steamer carrying diesel engines across the Atlantic Ocean not only carried him back to what Blakey referred to as "the root" of their music, but into a world of new found freedoms for black people as many of the countries he visited were gaining their independence from former colonial masters.
Unfortunately for Steve, returning to the States saw him lose his freedom, as the FBI busted him for being a draft dodger and he was sentenced to four years in jail. Upon his release he chose self-imposed exile and moved to Europe where he now calls Lugano, Switzerland home. Needless to say, after having had his taken away from him for refusing to fight in a war he didn't believe in, freedom in all shapes and sizes has become central to his being.
Listening to his newest release, Daxaar, traditional name of the Senegalese capital Dakar, where the disc was recorded on the Domino label, it's hard not to notice how that commitment to freedom is expressed in the music. Steve and long time collaborator, electronic music whiz Kieran Hebden were accompanied by keyboardist Boris Netsvetaev on the trip to Africa. Once there, they joined forces with five African players; Khadim Badji percussion, Dembel Diop bass, Roger Ongolo trumpet, and Jimi Mbaye guitar.
It's only natural that as a drummer Steve uses rhythm as the starting point for his music, and the idea behind this album was to create the music from a series of spontaneous jams around various rhythmic constructions. The results are something quite awesome. Daxaar starts off sedately enough with "Welcome", featuring the high, clean vocals that have become the hallmark of Senegalese sound. Isa Kouyate provides the vocal and plays the korah, a type of West African harp, that opens the door for us to enter into Africa via Steve Reid's vivid imagination and love of rhythm.
For the rest of the disc, while Africa remains firmly in the mix, the seven piece band sets out on an exploration of rhythm and melody in order to express themes or capture an image that Steve has in mind. For example on the title track "Daxaar" Reid had an image in his head of the people he had seen running on the beach when he first came into town from the airplane. That sets up an interesting contrast with "Dabronxaar" which mixes Steve's old "Da Bronx" neighbourhood and Daxaar into a sort of exotic funk stew.
The songs are built in layers of rhythm, so that they each develop a unique texture to the point where they become almost tactile experiences as well as auditory ones. "Daxaar" for example, starts out with only keyboard and electronic sounds, which are joined by muted conga drum, trumpet, and guitar. The near hypnotic affect that's created by their almost loop like repetition, is saved from becoming tedious by the interjection of an occasional crash from Steve's drum kit.
It's unexpected elements like that, or the trumpet solo in "Jiggy Jiggy", that give the disc Daxaar its spice and strength. Those are the expressions of freedom that are so important to Steve Reid, because while rhythm is the pulse that lets us know a piece of music has life, there's more to life than just making sure your heart is beating. There has to be the highs and lows of emotion and thought or else the body will just lie there inert and unfeeling.
Steve Reid's music is the furthest thing from being inert and unfeeling that I've heard in a long time. Unlike other rhythm based contemporary music that repeats itself in an endless drone causing listeners to shut down emotionally and intellectually, Steve's music has sparks of freedom blown into it that break through the walls of the rhythm stimulating your heart and keeping your mind ticking over.
I have to say that at first I found the use of electronics sort of disconcerting, but Kieran Hebden isn't just after making "neat sounds" or creating a single effect. He creates another instrument that works and responds to the acoustic instruments around him just as if he were playing a saxophone instead of "electronics". The only other group I've heard incorporate electronics into jazz based music this seamlessly has been The Chicago Underground Trio.
Steve Reid is quoted as saying he writes his music after its been played, and that when they started work on this disc and his fellow musicians asked what he wanted them to do, he told them "just play". Working at that level of improvisation can be the equivalent of giving yourself enough rope to be hung with if you don't know what you're doing or don't have a solid foundation to build from. For Steve Reid, the clues all reside in the rhythm, and he is a master at deciphering the clues that live in a particular rhythm to bring it completely alive.
The Steve Reid Ensemble's Daxaar is a brilliant example of what happens when the potential of rhythm is fully realized. It's some of the most fully alive music that I've listened to in a long time.