Beat Construction: Kieran Hebden, Steve Reid and Mats Gustafsson

Illustration KIM HIORTHØY
November 17, 2011

Preview: This story will appear in FADER #77, on stands soon. Live at the South Bank is out this week from Small Town Superjazz.

Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden gets a reaction out of Mats Gustafsson and the late Steve Reid.

Like any true sampling whiz, Kieran Hebden thinks of his collaborators as reactive ingredients. “I love when you get musicians that play really free all the time to work with other musicians that do more groove-based stuff,” says the free-thinking British electronic producer who records as Four Tet. Hebden is on the phone from Brooklyn, recalling the 2009 London festival gig that united him with saxophonist Mats Gustafsson (the really free guy) and drummer Steve Reid (the groove-based one), the same show that’s out now on the two-disc set Live at the South Bank. Hearing the record’s ecstatic marriage of dance music and free jazz strategies, it’s easy to understand Hebden’s excitement. It’s doubly so knowing the moment can’t be replicated: Reid passed away in 2010 at age 66. His ’60s and ’70s résumé—including work with James Brown and Fela Kuti as well as cult-hero jazz expressionists like Charles Tyler—is impressive. But the drummer died at the top of his game. It was Reid’s collaborations with Hebden that brought him the widest recognition. On a series of joyously exploratory records, kicked off by 2006’s The Exchange Session Vol. 1, Reid added a human heartbeat to Four Tet’s lush sample-based collages.

For the ’09 concert heard on Live at the South Bank, the organizers of London’s Meltdown festival had asked Hebden, whose duo with Reid was by then a known quantity, to tweak the formula. Hebden immediately thought to rope in Gustafsson, since it was the Swedish saxophonist’s paint-peeling duos with Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love that had first given him the idea to seek out his own percussive counterpart. It was a smart move. Think of Gustafsson as an aural irritant, the guy the pros (Sonic Youth or The Ex, say) call when they’re looking for a dose of pure punk-jazz grit. If the Hebden/Reid hook-up had lacked anything up to that point, it was raw aggression, and Gustafsson was happy to fill that void.

First, though, he waited. Before the South Bank gig, the only parameter the three players established was that Hebden and Reid would begin with a duet. “I was sitting onstage listening to them, and it was so freakin’ good!” says the saxophonist, speaking from a Lyon hotel room. “I don’t know how long, but it was quite a long wait until I started playing. In a way, I didn’t want the job.”

As you can hear on Live at the South Bank, Gustafsson takes his rightful place after about 20 minutes, unleashing angry-elephant brays over Hebden and Reid’s rumbling groove. As the set progresses, the players swap roles. The saxophonist triggers Reid’s still-sharp free jazz chops, and in turn takes rhythmic cues from Hebden’s body-moving sample riffs. Hebden, meanwhile, sends out clouds of bubbling static. By the finale, “The Sun Never Sets” (a piece first heard on Hebden and Reid’s 2007 album, Tongues), each player engages equally with rhythm and noise, yielding a teeming psych-jazz hymn that Sun Ra would’ve killed for. As abstract as the music gets, the rapturous applause that follows doesn’t come as a surprise.

Hebden stresses that this kind of response is what he and Reid were after all along. “The idea was to bring people together,” he says. “When we did shows, we didn’t want to do seated venues. People were standing, and ideally, we’d hit a point where they’d be dancing. Steve wasn’t that inspired by doing super-academic things; he was more of a raver, I think.”

Gustafsson is no dance music nut, but he relished the listener-friendly coherence of the Hebden/Reid collaboration. “I do so much abstract improvisation and noise-related music,” says the saxophonist. “So in a way, it’s more of a challenge to join something that has such a clear structure, and a harmonic center and melodic material. There’s been a lot of situations when I’ve been a little too uncomfortable with the material, and then it’s better just to shut up, but with Kieran and Steve, I never had the feeling that I should shut up.” Hebden is clearly thrilled at the brazenness his guest displays on Live at the South Bank. “Steve holds down this steady, tribal rhythm, and Mats doesn’t just play polite pop lines,” he asserts. “He’s screeching away in total madness the whole time.”
Two plus years on from the show, Gustafsson is in the grip of a different emotion. “He was such a sweet man,” he says, reminiscing about a pre-gig chat with Reid. “It felt so easy to just sit and hang next to each other. It’s just so sad that we can’t play together again.” Hank Shteamer

Beat Construction: Kieran Hebden, Steve Reid and Mats Gustafsson