Remembering An Oblong Odyssey: Steve Reid

With Steve Reid's death yesterday, we not only lost a great jazz drummer, but a soul that always looked outward. He was 66.

Steve Reid

That outwardness led to a resurgence to Reid's career in the past decade. His recorded sides and live gigs with Sun Ra, James Brown and Miles Davis in the '60s laid ground for his signature ride-heavy funk sound. It's the backbone that made its way into an extremely fruitful relationship and collaboration with electronics wiz Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet).

As Reid said in the opening of this video interview, "Music is not frequencies or anything. It goes beyond the physical realm. The source of it is not physical. It's like talking in tongues." Asked if Hebden and Reid speak the same language, Reid quickly said, "We do." And throughout the duo's five-year history — Tongues, NYC, two Exchange Sessions and two ensemble recordings in Spirit Walk and Daxaar — that was immediately apparent.

When I worked at the student-run WUOG in Athens, Ga., I received most of my jazz education from the station's vinyl archives. Original Arista/Freedom titles from Anthony Braxton, tattered Impulse! spines from Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp, that one really bizarre Alice Coltrane/Carlos Santana collaboration ... all of those LPs paled in comparison to one rarity: Odyssey of the Oblong Square.

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"Deacon's Son (excerpt)," from Steve Reid, Odyssey of the Oblong Square (Mustevic Sound, 1977; Soul Jazz reissue, 2009). Steve Reid, drums; Mohammad Abdullah, percussion; Ahmed Abdullah, trumpet; Arthur Blythe, alto sax; Charles Tyler, alto sax, David Wertman, bass.

Purchase: Amazon

Odyssey of the Oblong Square i i

The original artwork for Odyssey of the Oblong Square. hide caption

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Odyssey of the Oblong Square

The original artwork for Odyssey of the Oblong Square.

In 2004, Soul Jazz Records had just reissued two of Steve Reid's self-released records — Rhythmatism and Nova — and the nerds among us became a bit obsessed. In the DJ booth, Steve Reid was our funky free jazz pariah, our go-to mid-afternoon jam on a summer day with no A/C. (In fact, it still is.)

So when a friend came into the booth one particularly muggy day and said, "You'll never believe what I just found," we thought we had discovered the lost city of Atlantis. Odyssey of the Oblong Square had been previously misfiled and newly unearthed; I replaced whatever record was queued up next and let the entirety of Side A spin on-air. Its opening proclamation was loud and joyous. As the intro gave way to the side-long "Deacon's Son," a furiously deep funk sunk into the wet air, more percussion-driven than anything we'd heard from the Reid reissues, or really, anything since then.

Odyssey was pressed in a scant amount in 1977, and for some reason, Steve Reid sent WUOG a copy. Out of all the Reid reissues and new recordings over the past decade, my vinyl rip of Odyssey is still the Reid record I reach for most. Soul Jazz Records finally reissued it last year, but the crackle and hiss of the original is like another deliriously endless summer day, now stretched outward.

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