jazz drummer Steve Reid


Posted: 2010-04-14

Steve Reid: 1944-2010

On Monday night, drumming great Steve Reid died at the age of sixty-six after a battle with cancer. He leaves behind a legacy that’s explicitly known by few but surely felt by many. A couple of years ago we profiled what is sadly now his last record released in his lifetime, the superb Daxaar, the result of an inspired collaboration with Kieren Hebden (Four Tet). Below is a reprint of that original review, which also sheds light on his amazing background and why his passing is a great loss in the music world:

For both the man and the music, it’s a story of three continents.

Bronx native drummer Steve Reid has been everywhere and played for nearly everyone. He grew up across the street from Thelonius Monk and three blocks from John Coltrane. As a teenager he drummed for Martha Reeves and the Vandellas–that’s his distinctive backbeat on “Dancing In The Street"— and eventually worked with a staggering array of artists ranging from Fats Domino to James Brown to Miles Davis to Henry Threadgill and everyone in between.

To escape the draft and the Vietnam War in the late sixties, Reid hopped on a cargo ship to Africa and lived there for three years. Upon returning to the States, he was tried and convicted of draft evasion and was sentenced to four years in a federal pen. Even then, he made music connections, meeting jazz legend Jimmy Heath while in the clink. At some point after release, Reid moved to Switzerland.

Except for a spurt of activity in the mid-seventies, it’s only recently in his long and colorful career that Reid had earnestly begun to record his own albums. Even more recently, Reid has taken on electronica guru Four Tet aka Kieren Hebden as his collaborator (Spirit Walk (2005), The Exchange Session, Vols. 1 & 2 (2006) and Tongues (2007)).

Now, Reid has come full circle in a sense by going back to Africa, a continent he hadn’t set foot in for decades, and recording a set of tracks in the city in Senegal called Dakar but was formally spelled Daxaar. The product of these Janaury, 2007 sessions was released this past February 5th.

Reid took Hebden with him there to be the producer as well as his Russian keyboardist Boris Netsvetaev and they hooked up with African musicians Jimi Mbaye (guitar), Dembel Diop (bass), Roger Ongolo (cornet/trumpet) and Khadim Badji (percussion). His ensemble for this release is truly a multi-continental one. And the music?

Well, the first track “Welcome" is decidedly African. Isa Kouyate guests on it and the piece features his kora (West Africa harp) as well as his vocals sung in a local language. It’s a pleasant, fairly short tune but isn’t indicative at all of the rest of the album.

For the remainder of the recordings, Reid set the rhythms and asked his band to just play around it. As he put it, “when you can improvise on the rhythms you can’t go wrong." The results are five, 6-10 minutes tracks that are soul-jazz jams, with subdued improvising and little in the way of changes.

These jams’ blues-based chords set by Netsvetaev’s organ and Mbaye’s Les Paul, and underscored by a strong percussion section, make the music sound more like early Santana than anything straight out of Africa. Mbaye even goes as far as aping Carlos a bit in “Big G’s Family." Unlike most of the San Francisco area jam-based bands of the late-sixties and early-seventies, however, Reid’s ensemble is more steadfastly dedicated to the groove. You’d sometimes like to hear the soloists stretch out a bit more, though, as Ongolo and Mbaye in particular hint of being able to do much more. On “Dabronxxar," for example, they begin to suggest of their abilities before they fade back into the mlange.

In addition to handling the production chores, Hebden supplies the odd electronic sounds on some of the tracks, but without making it too intrusive. It’s perhaps the only hint that these otherwise-organic sounds were made in the 21st century.

Make no mistake; this isn’t the heavy, avant garde ethereal jazz of Spirit Walk, Reid’s last record. Daxaar is exactly what Steve Reid described it as: “regular groovy, happy music." On those more modest terms, Reid succeeded and succeeded well.

Below is a short documentary on the making of this album in Dakar, Senegal, including snippets from a few of the tracks: