The first installment of Kieran Hebden and Steve Reid’s Exchange Sessions proved one simple thing, if nothing else: improvised electronica can work. Samples, loops and canned beats, as nice as they all are, can get stale quickly, and Hebden made a point of temporarily doing away with what was expected, merely for the chance to stir things up with legendary percussionist Reid. That first set was an intriguing and unpredictable affair, surprisingly minimal, and even, at times, melodic. Primal and devoid of overtly danceable beats, it wasn’t one for the ravers, and for that, I’m thankful.
Considering the idea behind the collaboration, it really could have gone in a bad direction, as can any improv-based project. Yet, on Vol. 2, Hebden and Reid keep the music from floating into a Spinal Tap-like Jazz Odyssey. Its very makeup is one of indulgence, three tracks each clocking in at more than 15 minutes long each. So the challenge, then, is to keep it interesting for that long. And they do…for the most part.
“Hold Down the Rhythms, Hold Down the Machines” undergoes a major transformation, not once, but twice, beginning as an ambient near silence, building into a beat-friendly groove, then crashing into an atonal robot gone haywire. “Noémie” starts off with some whistling sounds, whirling into a sonic gust that makes way for some melodically percussive sounds. Then, some horns and an exotic set of rhythms and tones that wouldn’t be out of place in a Kurosawa film. And t his track, as well, becomes more frantic, more chaotic and more intense over time.
Track three, “We Dream Free,” is the shortest, yet that isn’t saying a whole lot, considering it still surpasses 16 minutes. It’s a bit more accessible than the other two, entering a hypnotic, primitive state with steady percussion and gentler tones than those of the first two tracks. As the album draws to a close, one can’t help but feel that two of these discs may have been a bit much. Thankfully, each disc works well enough on its own, not requiring a connection to the other, so the listener is free to fill his second free hour with the music of any other artist and not feel as if he missed something. Two hours of improvisational music, particularly without much melody to hold on to, can be exhausting. But as one, Exchange Session Vol. 2 is a fascinating set, and a worthy addition for those with adventurous tastes.
Kieran Hebden/Steve Reid – The Exchange Session Vol. 1
Steve Reid – Spirit Walk
Art Ensemble of Chicago – Bap-Tizm
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.