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Steve Reid Ensemble - Daxaar

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Artist: Steve Reid Ensemble

Album: Daxaar

Label: Domino

Review date: Feb. 26, 2008

To simply say Steve Reid has a storied past would be a vast understatement. The well-traveled drummer has seen not only a great amount of the world and worked with a ridiculous number of musicians in his 64 years, but has experienced some of life's greatest ups – providing rhythms for some of modern music's greatest innovators: Fela Kuti, Sun Ra, James Brown, Miles Davis, Fats Domino, Dexter Gordon and Quincy Jones to name a select few – and downs – jailed four years for "draft dodging" after returning to America from an Art Blakey-inspired expedition in Africa in 1969.

His high school years were spent visiting his neighbors, the Coltrane's, every morning for words of wisdom, playing drums in the Jones-led Apollo Theater in Harlem, and working occasionally as a Motown session player (Martha Reeves & the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street" being his first ever recording session). His 30s were spent as an integral part of Europe's avant-garde movement, recording for the likes of Nessa, Tribe, ESP-Disk and Strata-East. And lately, his overlooked career enjoyed a resurgence thanks to a couple of choice Soul Jazz reissues, a strong reverence from the record collecting community and a teaming with indie-electronica wunderkind Kieran Hebden.

The first of three-projected releases for international indie stalwarts Domino Records, Daxaar finds Reid back in bandleader mode. Returning to Africa for the first time in more than 40 years with Hebden and keyboardist Boris Netsvetaev in tow, the trio formed the rest of their ensemble with the cream of the Senegalese session players in the capital city of Dakar. With the almost exclamatory parenthetical on the albums front cover – "Recorded in Africa" – Reid and company looked to bridge a number of musical cultures in the Studio Dogo during their three-day recording fest in late January '07, and do so with better results than Reid’s other recent recordings, the stripped-down and improvised The Exchange Session, Vol. 1 and 2 and Tongues, both recorded solely with Hebden.

It is hard to pinpoint a stylistic description exactly on Daxaar, as the ensemble fluidly jumps from more traditional numbers – opening track "Welcome" being comprised of solely kora and vocals – to modern sounding cuts. For better or worse, "fusion" will likely be the go-to genre tag. And though the album certainly does evoke comparisons to the forward-thinking, electronic-obsessed jazz cats of the early ’70s, especially as Hebden's hiccupping electronics gurgle around keyboard grooves and electric guitar workouts, the negative connotations of the genre (proggy, cheesy, overproduced) need not apply. Yes, Weather Report and Head Hunters will be inevitable, if not lazy comparisons, but more tasteful and exotic selections of the genre – Don Cherry's Brown Rice for example – are much closer in feel.

Surprisingly, at least with Reid's ethos of musical exploration and his ambidextrous approach to the drums in mind, he tends to lock into a specific rhythm for each track – typically a proto-house-like groove that owes as much to Tony Allen as it does post-disco Bronx. Then again, this ability to lock down and provide a solid backbone for his auxiliary players reflects his experience as a bandleader. By limiting his own vast talents, he exemplifies the burgeoning skills of his players-in-training, and everyone sounds tighter for it.

Warming up to the true fusion, "Daxaar" and "Jiggy Jiggy" both instill a rigid but uplifting rhythm section for the lyrical players to improvise upon: first trumpeter Roger Ongolo and then the equally mbalax and jazz-funk influenced guitar player, Jimi Mbaye. "Dabronxxar" (the infusion of the Bronx within the archaic spelling of Dakar) joins both approaches. Reid loosens up and works the cymbals and traps with fervor, bassist Dembel Diop provides a buoyant elliptical bass loop, Hebden cues in a number of sputtering samples and Ongolo and Mbaye circle around each other, patiently returning lobs of the melody.

As with most of Reid’s releases to date, Daxaar doesn't find him using his ensemble as a backdrop to portray his own talents. He acts as the anchor, the sturdy and reliable foundation that allows his adjoining musicians to explore their own possibilities. Seeing as the album was composed on the fly in a limited amount of time, the recordings are all the more impressive for their cohesiveness. It is a modern jazz album – pillared by one of the most experienced drummers in the game, produced by one of the most interesting electronic innovators in contemporary music, and fleshed out by a cast of talented West African musicians. Albums like this one are few and far between.

By Michael Ardaiolo

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