I’ve just been playing this Art Ensemble Of Chicago thing from 1970 on Soul Jazz, “Les Stances A Sophie”, so it seems logical to follow it up with the fourth duo recording by Steve Reid and Kieran Hebden.
As it turns out, though, “NYC” is strikingly different from the pair’s previous collaborations – and more to my taste, too. Though I’m a long-term fan of Hebden, I must admit I’ve only a passing acquaintance with those previous albums, finding them a bit knotty and never really giving them the time they deserved. It struck me, though, that maybe Kieran was shifting his style to fit in more with that of the veteran drummer, that the partnership wasn’t entirely equal.
This time, it seems the emphasis has shifted. Apparently Reid decided they should record in his hometown and try and capture some of its “energies”. But from the start of “NYC”, “Lyman Place”, it’s clear that Hebden’s ascendant is in the ascendant. This is scrupulously busy, intense urban music, for sure, but it’s much more like some of Hebden’s work as Four Tet: a linear groove, squelching bass, an incredible sense of escalating menace.
The feel of New York post-punk and dance hybrids is strong here, and in the next track, the choppy and skinny funk of “1st & 1st”. But weirdly, I’m reminded more of the UK relatives of those downtown bands; people like A Certain Ratio and 23 Skidoo even. People, I suppose, who sometimes constructed soundtracks that resembled fantasies rather than realities of place.
It’s great, anyway: at once atmospheric and dynamic – though some of Reid’s more intransigent fans might baulk at how far he’s travelled from jazz on this session.. But then you get to “Arrival”, with Reid cackling distantly with joy as he unleashes a percussive firestorm, with Hebden freestyling wildly on electronic fizz and whirr, occasionally slinging some heavily processed guitar chords into the mix. Describing it sounds like chaos, but it’s vigorously on point and in the groove, utterly exhilarating.
Again, though, I’m reminded of some of Hebden’s solo improvisations. And the following “Between B&C” makes that point even more emphatically; a brilliant looping acoustic guitar sample, locked down over intricate breaks from Reid, that could pass as an organic re-imagining of something from Four Tet’s career-topping “Pause”. Now remind me to dig out those previous collaborations between the two and put this one in proper context.