Steve Reid, the great Bronx drummer and bandleader, is back at it in the 21st century. Having begun his recording career with Martha Reeves -- on "Dancing in the Street" no less! -- he has played with everyone from Miles, Fela , Sun Ra, and Jackie McLean to Dionne Warwick, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and James Brown. The fine Soul Jazz imprint from Great Britain reissued two of his celebrated albums from the 1970s -- Rhythmatism and Nova -- earlier in the decade. Reid, who now lives in Switzerland, was invited by the label to bring members of his own band to collaborate with some British jazz musicians and electronics man-machine Kieran Hebden of Four Tet. The players include four saxophonists, a bassist (who plays both standup and electric), Hebden, and a keyboardist who plays everything from grand piano to Rhodes to Hammond B-3. Reid is most certainly the anchor. Unlike one of his greatest influences, Reid believes in the drums being the turnstile on which other musicians and listeners return. The centrality of a recognizable beat in these tunes is what ties their sometimes disparate elements together. This is what has always set Reid apart from his peers on the kit. The set opens with "Lugano," a modal piece on which Reid and bassist John Edwards lay down a circular groove for the horns to play a strident head over, led by soprano saxophonist Chuck Henderson, who takes his solo and moves the whole thing over into Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" territory. As Nathaniel Catchpole's guttural tenor solo takes fire, Boris Netsvetaev's B-3 finds the seam and fills it. "Drum Story" may be Reid's passion, but it doesn't really fit here as a nearly 15-minute solo with oratory. Spirit Walk gets right back on track with "Bridget," a funky soul-jazz track with Hebden laying out some truly loopy electronics over Edwards' electric bass, layered over by soprano and bass saxophone playing counterpoint in a theme that is reminiscent of Bill Cosby's cartoon program in the early '70s. This is heavy groove-conscious stuff that never leaves the jazz behind.
"For Coltrane" could have also been entitled "For Fela." As a modal theme asserts itself with the tenors, baritone and bass saxes lay out a spacious head. Once again Henderson's soprano goes into some truly Eastern modal territory, playing something akin to snake-charming blues supported aggressively by Netsvetaev's B-3 and Hebden doing his turntable and processing thing in the space between. Neil Kleiner's tenor solo undoes the mode and finds another one as Reid and Edwards play the hypnotic center, shimmering the beat and shifting it to counter the tenor's weight. "Which One" is another spaced-out modal number with a killer front line and excellent soloing in tandem by the soprano and tenors. But after all this jazz, it is on "Lions of Judah" that the album reaches its summit and offers its biggest surprise: a soul-jazz ska breakdown that sounds like Jackie Mittoo, Rico, and King Tubby mixing it up with Fred Jackson, Don Wilkerson, and Archie Shepp! There are strange sonic mixes of vanguard jazz as it meets funk on "Unity," which closes the set, but in all, Spirit Walk is one of those recordings where everything feels like it is up for grabs and where nothing is sacred. What comes out with the winner's belt is jazz itself, as Steve Reid waves the banner for the continuing role of jazz as the newest thing.