Thursday, December 29, 2011

CD Review: Kieran Hebden/Steve Reid/Mats Gustafsson - Live at the South Bank

Kieran Hebden/Steve Reid/Mats Gustafsson
Live at the South Bank
(Smalltown Superjazzz)

Maybe you just had to be there.

The unlikely union of British electronic musician Kieran Hebden and American jazz drummer Steve Reid was already four years underway when they teamed up with Swedish free saxophonist Mats Gustafsson at the Meltdown Festival in London, an event curated by Ornette Coleman. A former member of Fridge, Hebden has been working under the name Four Tet, doing remixes and working with the likes of Thom Yorke when he met Reid. His partner's resume includes Miles Davis' Tutu album and extends back to the soul-jazz Legendary Master Brotherhood and, prior to dates with Sun Ra and Frank Wright, begins with the house band at the Apollo Theater. He died in 2010, less than a year after this concert, from throat cancer.

From the way the two musicians talked about each other, they felt a kinship that bridged the gap between their ages (Hebden was 33 years younger than Reid.) Reid went so far as to call the event a "special relationship, like Miles and Coltrane, or Dizzy and Bird." It's nice to hear about such a strong bond, but that unfortunately doesn't come across in the music.

The group didn't lay any claim to being a jazz unit. They played free improvisation group, open to wherever the sound took them. But Hebden's contributions don't sound like much more than samples or loops, and most of the time, none of them last longer than a few beats so they get repetitive quickly. "Morning Prayer" begins hopefully with a swelling chord but never really expands beyond that idea, aside from a few noises that drop in on top. Reid doesn't really forego tempo for free splatter. He straddles fills and groovy accents. Clearly he was an aggressive player but the mix flattens the impact. It sounds like it was all recorded overhead, making his performance sound more like a series of rolls on the rack toms and cymbals splashes, all echoing behind Hebden.

Gustafsson allegedly got so caught up in what they were playing that he didn't join in for nearly 20 minutes. When his baritone sax finally makes its entrance, it adds some more dimension to the texture. But no one really seems to be responding to his co-conspirators, at least not in an audible manner. Gustafsson blows in the Ayler/Brotzmann tradition of growling overtones, which can get a little much on its own. In "25th Street" he just blows the mouthpiece while an organ riff repeats without regard for the drums, and everything just gets grating.

The final track of the two-disc set, "The Sun Never Stops," reveals a little more of a connection. Hebden's keyboard sounds come from early '80s new wave, which sounds oddly intriguing in the setting. They gradually collapse into noise, including metallic clatter like cowbells, which may or may not come from Reid. Either way, the energy is contagious, with Gustafsson's guttural blowing generating excitement onstage and off. But it arrives after too long of a journey to fully appreciate that final destination, cohesive as it is.

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