The Exchange Session, Vol. 1 is the second collaboration between Four Tet's Kieran Hebden and jazz drummer extraordinaire Steve Reid. The pair first collaborated on Reid's excellent Spirit Walk album. There was one tune on that set, "Drum Story," where Hebden and Reid played without the rest of the latter's band. Over 13-minutes in length, it was an exercise in excess: Reid's rhythmic flail would have been enough, but to add his spoken poetry and Hebden's shrill knob twiddling was sonic torture. Though an excellent recording, that track marred what might have been a masterpiece. It also created a sense of foreboding when considering the first of the two-part Exchange Session, Vol. 1. That sense of dread is unfounded. The pair prove to be fine duet partners. When encountering these three cuts, one has to consider the politics and pitfalls of freely improvised music recorded without overdubs or edits. It's a tightrope walk. In "Morning Prayer" -- at six-and-a-half minutes it's the shortest work here -- the sense of mood, mode, and texture are the method in the madness. This feels like an improvising jazz group getting their bearings, turning the focus inwards. Reid's shimmering cymbal work guides the piece in a constant pulse, as Hebden layers in flutes, bird sounds, and the odd turntable slippage while the cymbals glide over them all, as well as tom toms and doubled-up bass drum. A tension is created, to be sure, but it's hardly brittle; it breathes and oozes life and hints at adventure. "Soul Oscillations" is a bit rougher going. Over the piece's first ten minutes it gathers steam in circular layers, Reid handles his kit and other percussion instruments with ease and a great sense of subtlety, with Hebden streaming in blips, beeps, backmasked keyboard loops, whizzes, warped tonal sonics, altering the speed and density of his samples, and pushing toward a margin he has not encountered before. Reid keeps the drums chanting, ever returning to the place of the pulse -- his long study of, and fascination with West African rhythms, is what keeps his young partner in the game. But Reid gradually gathers steam and allows the dramatic to possess him, and for the last four minutes the track just disintegrates into free jazz chaos. Conversely, "Electricity and Drum Will Change Your Mind" works in the opposite direction. The improvisation begins by gathering steam toward cacophony and achieves it as computer-manipulated sounds begin blurring into a sonic whir as the sound of marimbas, thumb pianos, and Reid's crashing cymbals create the pace that eventually dissolves into scree and skronk before the drum kit itself begins to assemble tensions and releases on the way down. Hebden is pushed here, too, relying on a sound sculptor's trick bag instead of improvisational smarts, but he does pull it together and off as he employs timbrel horns (perhaps sampled from the Master Musicians of Joujouka) and feedback to push back a little on Reid. The chaos reaches a static point in the center and begins to deconstruct itself rhythmically and purposefully toward the end becoming a formless, airy mass at the cut's nadir. This volume is a success and points the way toward new and compelling -- if still amorphous -- territory between rhythmic and electronic improvisation. The second set will no doubt reveal more.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek