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World Music Features

Steve Reid

By Jeff Tamarkin
Published April 10, 2008

Steve Reid has played the drums behind Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, Fela Kuti, James Brown, Miles Davis, and many others. For his new album, Daxaar, with the Steve Reid Ensemble, he returned to the continent, recruited some of the top local players and told them simply to jam. And jam they did.

Don’t sweat it if you’ve never heard of drummer and composer Steve Reid...you’re not alone. But if you’ve never heard of the people he’s whacked the skins for—among them John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Fela Kuti, James Brown, Miles Davis, and Sun Ra—then you must be new to this planet.

Either way, Reid doesn’t take it personally when his name draws blanks, only because there’s a positive side to remaining incognito. “I’ve played at the circus, at weddings, everywhere,” says the 64-year-old Bronx-born drummer, on the phone from Lugano, Switzerland, where he now lives. The relative anonymity, he explains, has allowed him to move freely across genres without getting pigeonholed. “I did what I could to get work. I never got caught up in being a heavy metal drummer or a jazz drummer or a funk drummer. That’s why I was very happy that until the last couple of years I was really unknown.”

As the colorful details of Reid’s incredible multi-decade journey have gradually come to light, his stealth status has changed significantly. Recently there have been two high-profile collaborations with Kieren Hebden’s Four Tet project on the ultra-hip Domino label. Now the Steve Reid Ensemble’s new album Daxaar (Domino) is bound to spread his rep even further. A culmination of influences and ideas that have been percolating for years, the album gets its title from an archaic spelling of the Senegalese capital of Dakar, which is where Reid and two of his regular musicians—keyboardist Boris Netsvetaev and DJ/programmer Hebden—packed off to begin recording in early 2007.

Reid asked around and assembled the best local players, and gave them one instruction: play what you feel. The result is a freewheeling groovefest that blurs the lines between jazz, funk and native African styles.

“It was funny,” Reid says about the concept of open-endedness that he wanted for the album. “When I first got there they said, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘I just want to play.’ They grew up in another system over there. For the guitar player, Jimi Mbaye, who has played with Youssou N’Dour, I figured this would be a good time for him to show that he’s got other skills besides his African thing. Then the other players were heavily jazz-influenced—the trumpet player, Roger [Ongolo], surprised me, man. I think he and the other guys surprised Jimi too, because the first thing he said was, ‘I didn’t know these guys were here!’”

Reid lets out a long and hearty laugh—something he does often when talking about both his current pursuits and his storied past. This trip to Africa wasn’t his first. He last visited more than three decades ago, when the purpose of his sojourn was, he says, “to receive.” But when he returned this time, “I wanted to bring something back.”

Music has always been a quest for Reid, and from the start his path took him directly to the masters. Growing up in the Bronx, he says, “I happened to live on a street called Lyman Place, with Thelonious Monk living right across the street, and the great Elmo Hope, another piano player, living upstairs from us. So I heard jazz very early. Then I got into a rhythm and blues thing and playing in the church. I played for dances.”

Reid got one of his first breaks when the regular drummer for Motown’s Martha And The Vandellas failed to show up for a gig. Martha Reeves liked how the youngster handled himself and invited him to play on her next record, “Dancing in the Street,” which became one of the best-sellers of 1964 and is a classic today.

From there, one connection led to the next. After moving to Queens, Reid was often invited to play at Coltrane’s house. “I was too intimidated to show up at a gig. He would always tell me to come on down and I would never show up,” Reid says, laughing again.

By the late ’60s, as the civil rights movement heated up into something more progressive and militant, Reid was caught up