Thursday, January 21, 2066

The place to report broken links and request stuff!

Howdy people...

October 1, 2016 Update:

Sorry for being absent for a while, part of it was due to a very nice Indian Summer and discovering a new beach about 2 clicks from home. So now that I have worked up a bit of a tan, I am happy to inform you all that I am back, tons of stuff ready to post, And that I finally resolved the situation of my faulty hard drive and got myself a nice new 8  tb server for the house, Spent most time this week transferring from the Data DVD's I had as backup (It takes a while and a shitload of discs to back up 6tb)... Once this is done I will close shop for a little while as far as new posts go and concentrate on reuploading all the dead links, It will be much easier having it all on one drive than to have to sift thru a gazillion backup DVD's... wish me luck and happy music hunting y'all... o yeah! and Shanah Tova to my Jewish friends around the world!

From now on lets use this sticky post for all requests and re-post notices, So that I can keep better track of it, and get stuff done... Thanks a lot!

When notifying about a dead link, please include te link to the actual post, because that would make my work a lot faster (And I mean  A LOT). Thanks in advance to all the dudes and dudettes helping out!

Thanks a lot for all the encouraging messages and anonymous goodies! (I really appreciate it).

Monday, February 27, 2017

Amalgam - 1976 - Another Time

Another Time

01. Jive 5:39
02. Suzie Jay 6:03
03. Tribute To 'Trane 6:58
04. Just East Of Mars 6:30
05. Another Time 11:30
06. Chips 10:06

Recorded at The Workhouse Studios, New Cross, London, 21st & 23rd July 1976

Trevor Watts - alto & soprano saxophones
Steve Hayton - guitar
Pete Cowling - bass guitar
Liam Genockey - drums

4th  album by the superb British Jazz / Improvised Music ensemble Amalgam, one of the precursors of British / European Free Jazz scene in the late 1960s and 1970s, founded by saxophonist Trevor Watts. On this album the lineup is a quartet, including guitarist Steve Hayton, bassist Pete Cowling and drummer Liam Genockey, which marks the beginning of the second phase of Amalgam, which is characterized by the dual saxophone – guitar frontline. The music is written entirely by Watts, who after the departure of drummer John Stevens became the group's main composer. This album was originally released on the tiny German independent Vinyl label, and was unavailable for many years, which is now rectified by this CD issue. With the guitar and electric bass the sound of the band changes completely, with a distinct Fusion feel, but the dexterity and obvious genius are still the same as always. This is probably the most accessible Amalgam album ever recorded and young listeners, ignorant of the band's Improvised Music roots should be able to enjoy it immensely. This is still a classic, although a different cup of tea altogether. Brilliant stuff!

First time outing on CD for this classic Amalgam recording originally released on Berlin's
Vinyl Records in 1976. Trevor Watts heads a highly experienced line up which includes
Steve Hayton on guitar, the bass guitar of Pete Cowling and the confident drumming of
Liam Genockey and features six mostly Watts composed original quartet pieces.

Amalgam - 1974 - Innovation


01. Staggering
02. When Is Now
03. Hello
04. Suzie Jay
05. Austrian Roll

Alto Saxophone – Trevor Watts
Bass – Kent Carter, Lindsay Cooper
Congas – Terry Quaye
Drums – John Stevens
Piano – Keith Tippett

Recorded 12.11.74

3rd album by the superb British Jazz / Improvised Music ensemble Amalgam, one of the precursors of British / European Free Jazz scene in the late 1960s and 1970s, founded by saxophonist Trevor Watts. On this album the lineup includes the legendary drummer John Stevens, pianist Keith Tippett, bassists Kent Carter and Lindsay Cooper and conga player Terri Quaye. The music includes four compositions by Stevens and one by Watts, all of which are excellent vehicles for the extended improvisations. This album was originally released on the tiny independent Tangent label, and was unavailable for many years, which is now rectified by this CD issue. In many respects this album is quite different from most of the ensemble's output, as it includes a piano, which was not usually included in the lineup, mellowing the overall sound. Tippett plays wonderfully of course and his contribution is most valuable. Overall this is yet another example of the wonderful forces at work during a most illustrious period in British Jazz. A classic of the genre and a must for any Free Jazz / Improvised Music buff!

Amalgam - 1973 - Play Blackwell & Higgins

Play Blackwell & Higgins

01. Blackwell 21:30
02. Higgins 26:30

Bass – Jeff Clyne
Drums – John Stevens
Saxophone – Trevor Watts

Blackwell: Live at Birmingham Arts Lab. 23.3.72.
Higgins: Live at Phoenix, London. 24.1.73

2nd album by the superb British Jazz / Improvised Music ensemble Amalgam, one of the precursors of British / European Free Jazz scene in the late 1960s and 1970s, founded by saxophonist Trevor Watts. On this album the lineup is a trio, including the legendary drummer John Stevens and bassists Ron Herman and Jeff Clyne. As the title suggests, Amalgam play tribute to two almost anonymous heroes of the American Jazz revolution, drummers Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins, both of which played on the pioneering recordings by Ornette Coleman and contributed their share in expanding the Jazz horizons. The music is recorded live and both extended compositions included here are by Stevens. This album was originally released on the tiny independent A label, owned by Watts, and was unavailable for many years, which is now rectified by this CD issue. The performances are inspired and fiery, proving how advanced the British scene was at the time. Watts' saxophone work summarizes the development of the instrument in the hand of geniuses like Coleman, Albert Ayler and John Coltrane. Overall this is yet another example of the wonderful forces at work during a most illustrious period in British Jazz. A true classic of the genre and a must for any Free Jazz / Improvised Music buff!

Continuing with the Amalgam/Jeff Clyne-oriented posts, this was recorded after the "Prayer for Peace" we posted here before. After this recording, Amalgam was to head off in a more explicit fusion direction with a change in personnel with John Stevens vacating the drum chair and Jeff Clyne leaving the bass to others. Interestingly, Clyne became a member of Nucleus and in the mid-70s started his own fusion project under the name of Turning Point. Stevens himself started the band Away, but we'll get to all of that in due course.

Meanwhile, here they are all in tribute mode - to the drummers of the early Ornette Coleman combos and to Coleman himself, of course. In the liner notes, Watts credits the natural melody and the pure rhythm approach of Coleman and the influence both drummers had on the evolution of Stevens. This is not tribute by way of emulation, but by feel - by playing what's right in the given context. Only two tracks here, both recorded live with Stevens down in the steam room, the bassists plying lightly in the background and Watts up front with short bursts of melodic rhythm. Perhaps that is a key characteristic of Watts - the sense of rhythm - strongly explored in later years with his various percussive combos under the moniker of Moire music. Still active, I'm happy to say and just recorded for the Berlin-based Jazz Werkstatt label. Amalgam was a vehicle for the development of the more convential side of the duo's playing; the Spontaneous Music Ensemble another vehicle for going beyond the conventions. And Stevens is a thrill here - his stamina is just amazing!

Amalgam - 1969 - Prayer For Peace

Prayer For Peace

01. Tales Of Sadness
02. Judys' Smile I
03. Judys' Smile II
04. Judys' Smile III
05. Prayer For Peace

Recorded at Advision London on the 20th May 1969

Trevor Watts: alto sax
John Stevens: drums
Jeff Clyne: bass
Barry Guy: bass

In the late 60s, British jazz was in a state of flux, pulling itself into strange new shapes influenced by the U.S. avant garde, European improvisation and rock and giving birth to bands such as Keith Tippett's Centipede, Nucleus, and Trevor Watts' Amalgam.
Alto saxophonist Watts was the driving force behind the legendary Spontaneous Music Ensemble, alongside drummer John Stevens. While that outfit took post Coltrane jazz further out into the spiky landscapes of what was later to be called 'free improvisation', Amalgam operated in more melodic, less cerebral territory over their thirteen year history.
The 1969 debutPrayer for Peace originally appeared as a double album on the Transatlantic label (home to Brit folkies Pentangle) and featured the trio of Watts, bassist Jeff Clyne plus the now sadly departed Stevens on drums. Though you might expect flat out full on free jazz blowout from such a line up, Prayer for Peace is for the most part a warm, soulful thing, full of space, light and shade.
Watts's fruity alto stylingscarry amagisterial weight derived from Coltrane coupled with some of Albert Ayler's quivering vibrato, though his preference for clear, unbroken melodic line recalls Ornette Coleman. The absence of a chordal instrument isn't felt, partly due to Eddie Offord's lushly atmospheric recording but mostly due to Clyne, whose fat, melodic lines provide warm, unflagging support throughout.
The opening "Tales of Sadness" is a beautiful essay in controlled group improvisation; Clyne and Stevens opt for pulse rather than time under Watts's spare but lovely theme, with Steven's skittering snare decelerating and accelerating. Eventually the rhythm section hits a splashy, restless groove as the alto heads off into abstracted, chopped up phrases. Three takes of "Judy's Smile" show both the trio's differing approaches to the same material and their ability to generate a fearsome amount of swing. Throughout there's a constant three way exchange - these guys have big ears, always on the listen.
For the closing title track Clyne is replaced by Barry Guy, whose warm, buzzing arco bass makes the ideal foil for Watts's plaintive Ayleresque melody. To close, bass and alto circle each other, firing off high pitched harmonics into the ether.Lovely, empathic musicmaking from a fascinating era in Britjazz history. Heady days indeed.

Spontaneous Music Ensemble - 2008 - Bare Essentials

Spontaneous Music Ensemble 
Bare Essentials

101. In The Midlands 5:51
102. In The Middle 19:59
103. Three Extracts 16:56
104. For Phil 32:25

201. Newcastle 72A 15:51
202. Newcastle 72B 7:59
203. Open Flower 1 2:20
204. Open Flower 2 3:36
205. Open Flower 3 7:02
206. Open Flower 4 2:34
207. Open Flower 5 1:02
208. Open Flower 6 2:49
209. Open Flower 7 8:25
210. Opening The Set 4:27
211. Beyond Limitation 8:15
212. Lowering The Case 9:27

All analogue concert recordings made by TREVOR WATTS
A1: Wolverhampton (Polytechnic) - 1973 APRIL 5
A2: London (Little Theatre Club) - 1972 OCTOBER 5
A3: London (Little Theatre Club) - 1972 SEPTEMBER 20
A4: London (Little Theatre Club) - 1972 OCTOBER 13
B1 - B2: Newcastle-upon-Tyne - 1972 NOVEMBER 30
B3 - B9: London (Little Theatre Club) - 1973 JANUARY 5
B10: London (Little Theatre Club) - 1973 FEBRUARY 2
B11: London (Little Theatre Club) - 1973 JANUARY 28
B12: London (Little Theatre Club) - 1973 MARCH 9
Total time 149:57

Percussion, Cornet, Voice, Music By – John Stevens (2)
Soprano Saxophone, Voice, Music By, Recorded By [Analogue Concert Recordings] – Trevor Watts

Ever since I heard this duo, I have thought that if any music deserved to be called minimalist it was this one, because they managed to strip the music down to its bare essentials yet keep its content - unlike so much minimal art that seems to 'throw out the baby with the bathwater'.

For most of the years 1972 and 1973, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble was the duo of John Stevens and Trevor Watts (with others added from time to time on an ad hoc basis). One should not, however, think of this as an ‘in between’ phase – it was an intense period of exploration and experimentation. They used to rehearse in private most days, and perform in public most weeks usually at the Little Theatre Club in London where most of this music was recorded.

When an opportunity of a record release arose, Stevens tended to put a special enhanced group together rather than use a regularly working group. I was so taken by this duo being a complete group, that I was determined to issue an LP by them unenhanced when I started Emanem in 1974. Hence FACE TO FACE, recorded late 1973. Over thirty years later, we now have a most unexpected but very welcome opportunity to listen to some earlier work by this duo.

At the time, some people thought this music was cold, clinical and lacking variety. These recordings show that it was far from all that – it varied from the emotional ferocity of Free Jazz heard in parts of FOR PHIL to the quiet stillness heard in LOWERING THE CASE. All this was achieved with Trevor Watts just playing soprano saxophone, and John Stevens playing either his small drum set or his recently acquired cornet. (They also made some use of their voices.)

Portable cassette players became generally available around 1970, and Trevor Watts was one of the first people to use one to extensively record performances. Such machines were extremely convenient to use, but they tended to make noisy recordings. However, it has now been possible to clean up the sound thanks to the wonders of modern digital technology.

Watts recently went through his cassette archive and came up with several hours of duo recordings that he made with Stevens in late 1972 and early 1973 – a period not otherwise available on record. Prior to this release, there were no published small group SME recordings made between the mid 1971 quartet with Julie Tippett and Ron Herman and the duo in late 1973; and there were no published examples of Stevens’ cornet playing from before late 1973.

I set about going through this material, cleaning up the sound, and reducing the quantity to a manageable amount (with Watts’ approval). A few items were eliminated because the recordings were faulty. Some performances were dispensable because they were similar to others, but not so inspired. Most of the finally selected pieces have been edited – after all it was Stevens who alerted me to the art of editing improvised music!

Thus IN THE MIDDLE comes from a 38-minute performance which got off to a tentative start. Then towards the end, Stevens sounds as though he lost interest – something he often did after feeling that a successful piece had run its course. These two lesser parts have thus been removed to leave a very fine middle 20-minute section. At first sight, Watts’ playing may seem limited, but further listening and acclimatisation reveals an apparently infinite supply of ideas. Watch out for a conversational section where Stevens just plays wood blocks, bells and elbow-tuned drums - the two players particularly seem to fit together hand-in-glove there. This contrasts with the forward momentum of IN THE MIDLANDS which starts the CD.

The conversational aspect is even more obvious on THREE EXTRACTS, which is now the earliest recording of Stevens’ cornet playing to be issued. This track consists of the start of a 29-minute cornet and saxophone duo, along with two later excerpts, eliminating three less inspired sections. After a fairly equal discourse in the opening, the second extract finds Stevens repeating a note which goads Watts into some very emotional playing, followed by a section in which Watts alternates voice and saxophone notes in a very African way. The third extract involves a considerable amount of flexible droning.

It can be argued that improvisations should not be edited to enable one to follow the whole flow. Or that it’s interesting to hear how musicians like Stevens and Watts managed to get themselves out of relatively dull situations. However, I think that a published recording designed for repeated listening should only really contain the best bits. After all, there are non-musical as well as musical events that influence improvisation, and we rarely know what happened to musicians in the period before the performances.

In one case we do know of an outside event: The great jazz drummer Phil Seamen died earlier on the day that FOR PHIL was recorded. This heartfelt performance is included here complete. It begins in a very stark manner as if the duo were coming to terms with the sad news they had just received. The momentum picks up sporadically, somewhat abetted by Stevens’ wailing, and eventually reaches a fever pitch at the height of which the drums are replaced by the cornet. The tension subsides as the two horns go through a funereal section, and quieten down to some afterthoughts. How can this be called ‘abstract music’? It’s one of the most moving requiems I have ever heard.

The two complete NEWCASTLE pieces are perhaps more typical of the duo’s work at the time – very moving within their somewhat static environment. They both generally stay in a particular area, but the first one has a surprising final section.

Around the change of year, the duo started concentrating on Stevens’ extreme minimal click piece FLOWER. They carried on in this manner for most of the year – an austere period of removing everything but the bare essentials – and an example from the following October has been released on FRAMEWORKS. Both Trevor Watts and I feel that the later released performance tells one all one needs to know about the formal aspect of the piece, so the clicking aspect has been left out of the January pieces heard here leaving just the ensuing free sections.

The seven OPEN FLOWER tracks, like the later FACE TO FACE pieces, show how one of Stevens’ basic conceptions can result in improvisations taking off in several different directions. Note how the music goes off in a somewhat unexpected direction half way through the third one when Watts, momentarily left on his own, boils over. BEYOND LIMITATION is another example from a few weeks later of where the same concept can lead, with Stevens adding a complementary vocal line. OPENING THE SET is the start of their performance at a festival they organised at the Little Theatre Club.

LOWERING THE CASE contains an example of a different sort of minimalism that they often indulged in - a very quiet and slow section that anticipates some more recent directions - something that can also be heard on other recordings from the period. (This section was difficult to clean up as the music was quieter than the hiss, which may be the reason why this area of playing didn’t really catch on until the advent of digital recording.)

Trevor Watts plays superbly throughout these two CDs. He actually plays superbly throughout all of the unedited cassettes, whereas John Stevens was always trying something else and not always succeeding. However, his playing is magnificent on the music included in this album, and there is much of his unique small kit drumming which somehow implied both momentum and stasis at the same time. But perhaps the most amazing aspect is their togetherness – they often sound one four-armed person playing two instruments.


Spontaneous Music Ensemble - 2007 - Frameworks 1967-72

Spontaneous Music Ensemble 
Frameworks 1967-72

01. Familie Sequence
02. Quartet Sequence
03. Flower

Percussion – John Stevens
Bass Clarinet – Trevor Watts
Soprano Saxophone – Trevor Watts
Flugelhorn – Kenny Wheeler
Trombone – Paul Rutherford
Voice – Norma Winstone
Double Bass – Ron Herman
Guitar, Voice – Julie Tippett
Soprano Saxophone – Trevor Watts
Voice – John Stevens

Track 1 recorded at London on July 14, 1968.
Track 2 recorded at London on April 25, 1971.
Track 3 recorded at London (Little Theatre Club) on October 11, 1973.

John Stevens was never satisfied. After coming up with a unique, viable and highly influential method of group improvisation in the middle of 1967 (usually referred to as 'SME Music'), he decided to introduce other elements, most notably the Click Piece and the Sustained Piece which became the most extreme of his pieces designed to help people into group improvising. These, and other such concepts, began to be used in the music of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME), as can be heard on this CD.

Another change occurring early in 1968 was that Trevor Watts rejoined the SME, after a year away from the group. He then stayed until 1976, but has always maintained that it wasn’t really his sort of music, as can be ascertained by his more overtly rhythmic and lyrical work before and after, as well as in his free jazz group Amalgam which co-existed with this SME period. However, it must be said that his work with the SME is superb – but then, he is a superlative (and much underrated) musician.

This CD contains three previously unissued performances that all feature Stevens’ frameworks leading to group improvising. FAMILIE SEQUENCE from mid-1968 features a unusual instrumentation with three wind instruments, voice and percussion. (An earlier, unissued studio recording of FAMILIE has the very different instrumentation of two voices, piccolo, flute, soprano sax, piano, guitar, cello, two double basses and percussion.) The group texture is made even more unusual by Watts playing bass clarinet.

The first nine minutes comprise the loose theme which was heavily inspired by Gagaku (Japanese court music). This leads to a group improvisation which is interrupted at one point by a short section in which everyone plays glissandi together. Then come short Sustained and Click Pieces which in turn lead to another free improvisation which is capped off by looser versions of Sustained and Click. The overall sequence is unlike any other on record, although there are sections similar to other SME performances.

By the start of 1969, the SME had evolved to the line-up of Stevens, Watts, Johnny Dyani and Maggie Nicols with Wheeler added at times. This was followed by an unrecorded quartet with Mongezi Feza instead of Nicols and Wheeler. 1970 saw the inclusion of several more jazz-aligned musicians into the SME, then for several months in 1971 there was the quartet of Stevens, Watts, Julie Tippett and Ron Herman, which some listeners regard as their favourite SME line-up. (This band has a special place for me, since one of their concerts turned me on to the world of free improvisation.)

The QUARTET SEQUENCE heard here is somewhat similar to their masterpiece BIRDS OF A FEATHER which was recorded a few months later. One aspect of this quartet’s music was the reintroduction of free jazz elements into the SME group improvising. Thus the opening section is influenced by the trio of Albert Ayler, Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray – one of the major influences on the SME group music. The second section is more like SME group music, though it does contain repetitive elements. The third section is like a very emotional Ayler ballad. This is followed by a Click Piece and a Sustained Piece.

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this quartet is the amazing interplay between saxophone and voice. Prior to this, Julie Tippett had been a successful pop singer (using her maiden name), but had become disillusioned with that world, and had decided to find something else that was more spiritually satisfying to her. Ron Herman was one of numerous young musicians discovered and encouraged by John Stevens. He played with the SME for a few years, but died at a tragically young age. Stevens can be heard using a glockenspiel in addition to his evolving small drums and cymbals kit that is heard throughout this CD.

For the next couple of years, the SME was basically just Stevens and Watts, with other people added on an ad hoc basis. During most of 1972 and 1973, the duo SME performances were very austere, concentrating on performances of the hyper-minimalist piece FLOWER, which is superficially similar to the Click Piece. Most of Stevens' pieces were designed to open up into freedom - after over six minutes of apparently mechanical playing, the version heard here changes into some emotionally charged free improvisation. This encapsulates the way they came out of their austere period late in 1973, culminating in the magnificent performances collected on FACE TO FACE (Emanem 4003).


Spontaneous Music Ensemble - 1997 - Withdrawal

Spontaneous Music Ensemble 

01. Withdrawal Soundtrack - Part 1A 5:19
02. Withdrawal Soundtrack - Part 1B 5:07
03. Withdrawal Soundtrack - Part 1C 7:49
04. Withdrawal Soundtrack - Part 2 13:42
05. Withdrawal Sequence 1 11:22
06. Withdrawal Sequence 2 10:51
07. Withdrawal Sequence 3 "C4" 2:34
08. Seeing Sounds & Hearing Colours - Introduction "Puddles, Raindrops & Circles" 4:02
09. Seeing Sounds & Hearing Colours - Movement 1 4:43
10. Seeing Sounds & Hearing Colours - Movement 2 "C" 5:15
11. Seeing Sounds & Hearing Colours - Movement 3 7:23

Double Bass, Piano – Barry Guy
Drums, Percussion, Cymbal [Cymbals] – John Stevens
Guitar [Amplified] – Derek Bailey (tracks: 5 to 11)
Oboe, Alto Saxophone, Flute, Voice, Percussion – Trevor Watts
Soprano Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone, Percussion – Evan Parker
Trombone, Percussion – Paul Rutherford (2)
Trumpet, Flugelhorn, Percussion – Kenny Wheeler

1-4: 1966 September/October
5-11: 1967 March

Originally issued in 1997 as Emanem 4020.

All compositions by John Stevens

Here is a missing link between the first two Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) recordings to be published. The music on CHALLENGE (recorded 1966 March and reissued on Emanem 5029) is mainly free jazz, with composed themes framing improvisations which are mostly accompanied by the rhythm section. On the other hand, KARYOBIN (recorded 1968 February, originally on Island and now with its ownership in dispute) is radically different - a distinctive, translucent group improvisation with virtually no traces of jazz left. (Some earlier recordings of this highly influential SME or "atomistic" approach were eventually issued in 1995 as SUMMER 1967 on Emanem 4005.) Some aspects of this music, such as using many instruments to produce varied 'colours', are similar to those reached around the same time by the AACM in Chicago. It should be emphasised, however, that neither group of musicians was aware of each other’s existence at the time.

This CD, however, does not give the whole interim story - thirty years later one can only listen to the aspects that were recorded. The SME was then a collective grouping with John Stevens and Trevor Watts being the prime movers (and composers). Regular performances, mostly at the Little Theatre Club in London, featured some or all of these seven musicians (plus a few others) in various combinations, sometimes using composed material. All the while, new approaches were being tried, but many did not make it to tape.

"WITHDRAWAL was composed and recorded as the soundtrack to a 35 minute film of the same name, produced and directed by George Paul Solomos. The film was adapted from a 90-page book by David Chapman, based on the true story of a young male addict and his experiences in a mental institution. The group read the book in preparation of the soundtrack which, unusually, was intended to accompany the action throughout the film from start to finish." *

The film was hardly begun when it was aborted by a funding crisis and a dispute with the British Film Institute. However, two (slightly imperfect) mono tapes of music, intended for use as the soundtrack, survived. Special mention must be made of Kenny Wheeler's very fine playing in what is almost a concerto on PART 1, with Paul Rutherford's trombone and Trevor Watts' oboe providing most imaginative foils. PART 2 contains particularly excellent playing by Watts (on alto saxophone) and Wheeler. Barry Guy's role is limited to providing a flexible drone in both parts. These 1966 pieces are extracts from longer performances – tracks 1-3 were edited together at the time for possible release, while the edited-out start of PART 2 featured the drummer laying down a rock rhythm which everyone else ignored.

These recordings are the earliest released recordings of the then recent SME recruits, Barry Guy and Evan Parker – and they will probably remain the earliest. It must be said that not much of Parker is heard here – he says he felt overawed in such company! The other four musicians had all been on the CHALLENGE LP, whilst Wheeler (who migrated in 1952 from Toronto to London where he subsequntly remained) had appeared on numerous jazz records during the previous decade.

For the next three months Stevens was resident in Copenhagen and Amsterdam, with one or two other SME musicians joining him for shorter periods. The group still continued during this period under the direction of Watts, and there was one (as yet unissued) recording session - the only SME recording without Stevens. Watts also invited Derek Bailey to join them at the Little Theatre Club so, when Stevens returned, the group comprised seven musicians who all went on to have very distinguished careers in free improvisation and/or other areas of music.

It was decided to record an LP to be called WITHDRAWAL that would include a reworking of some of the material used for the soundtrack, plus a new suite composed by Stevens while he was away. The remainder of this CD (tracks 5-11) is the music that was chosen for that LP, but not issued until 1997 – all of these pieces are complete performances.

This session is one of the earliest recordings of Bailey playing free music. He appears to play excellently thoughout, but is unfortunately rather under-recorded.

The revisiting of the WITHDRAWAL material is quite different from the soundtrack recordings. For instance, Guy no longer has the restricted droning role he had before. The most obvious item in common is the glockenspiel motif played intermittently on the soundtrack by Stevens, and now played by Parker (who does not even get to play a saxophone on the two major tracks).

SEQUENCE 1 features some very fine trombone and trumpet work, and a prime example of what Victor Schonfield calls "start/stop" drumming. Stevens still used a fairly orthodox jazz drums and cymbals kit - the small SME kit (first recorded on SUMMER 1967) was some months off. SEQUENCE 2 is particularly notable for Watts' flute playing (over a rare example of Guy playing piano), while other tracks feature his equally strong oboe playing, A year or two later, he decided to concentrate exclusively on the soprano and alto saxophones, and abandoned his other wind instruments. SEQUENCE 3 is a sparse composed theme over a busy backdrop (based on C4 written for the mid-1966 Jeff Clyne Quartet SPRINGBOARD date).

"SEEING SOUNDS AND HEARING COLOURS was a suite composed and directed by Stevens with specific musical textures, timbres and 'colours' in mind. He said the composition had been influenced by Webern's FIVE PIECES FOR ORCHESTRA, and that he visualised the score one morning (lines and shapes) while in Amsterdam. It reveals the group at an historically significant transitional point, experimenting with instrumentation and composition, before taking the plunge with free improvisation, but the group were not wholly satisfied with these experiments and Stevens later felt he was 'getting side-tracked from the natural, organic approach towards improvisation'. The suite was dedicated to artist Geoff Rigden."

The INTRODUCTION featuring oboe and bowed cymbal was inspired by a scene depicting raindrops falling into pools of water in a natural history film about New Zealand. MOVEMENT 1 starts with a flourish that ends with a long oboe note leading into a collective improvisation. MOVEMENT 2 is an improvisation built around the note C; the idea of improvising around a single note is similar to some music by Giacinto Scelsi, of whom the SME was then unaware. The final MOVEMENT 3 begins with three chords preceding a group improvisation that is terminated by the material from the start of MOVEMENT 1 in reverse.

Spontaneous Music Ensemble - 1997 - Quintessence

Spontaneous Music Ensemble 

101. Forty Minutes 40:11
102. Rambunctious 1 18:36
103. Rambunctious 2 4:47
104. Daa-Oom (Trio Version) 5:05

1: ICA Theatre - 1974 February 3
The second half of this concert is on Quintessence 2 - Emanem 4016
2-4: Little Theatre Club - 1973 October 18

1 originally issued in 1986 as Emanem LP 3401 - Eighty-five Minutes Part 1
2-4 previously unissued

Cello [Right] – Kent Carter
Guitar [Amplified, Left] – Derek Bailey
Percussion, Cornet – John Stevens
Soprano Saxophone [Left] – Evan Parker
Soprano Saxophone [Right] – Trevor Watts
Double Bass – Kent Carter (tracks: 2 to 4)
Percussion, Voice – John Stevens (2) (tracks: 2 to 4)

201. Thirty-Five Minutes 34:39
202. Ten Minutes 10:06
203. Corsop 11:08
204. Daa-Oom (Duo Version) 10:18

1-2: ICA Theatre - 1974 February 3
The first half of this concert is on Quintessence 1 - Emanem 4015
3-4: Little Theatre Club 1973 October 11

1-2 originally issued in 1986 as Emanem LP 3402 - Eighty-five Minutes Part 2
3-4 previously unissued

Cello [Right], Double Bass [Right] – Kent Carter (tracks: 1, 2)
Cornet, Voice, Percussion – John Stevens (2) (tracks: 3, 4)
Guitar [Amplified, Left], Guitar [Left] – Derek Bailey (tracks: 1, 2)
Percussion, Cornet – John Stevens (2) (tracks: 1, 2)
Soprano Saxophone – Trevor Watts (tracks: 3, 4)
Soprano Saxophone [Left] – Evan Parker (tracks: 1, 2)
Soprano Saxophone [Right] – Trevor Watts (tracks: 1, 2)

The eight-five minutes of totally improvised music produced at the 1974 ICA concert are so cohesive that it sounds as if this quintet had worked together for some considerable time. However, apart from a brief sound check earlier that day, this was the only occasion that these five musicians performed together.

Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, John Stevens and Trevor Watts had been part of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble for a few months in 1967 [heard on WITHDRAWAL - Emanem 5040], which performed a transitional music that had departed from Free Jazz. What became the SME type of Free Improvisation arose later that year when the group had reduced to the duo of Stevens and Parker [SUMMER 1967 - Emanem 4005]. After a personnel change in 1968, Stevens and Watts became the nucleus of the SME until 1976. In the meantime, Bailey and Parker often performed together in various settings, and Bailey sat in with the SME from time to time.

Kent Carter, on the other hand, first visited Britain in mid-1973 as a member of a special Steve Lacy Quintet that also included Bailey, Stevens and Steve Potts [SAXOPHONE SPECIAL + - Emanem 4024]. He also played with Watts and Stevens in a very different, short-lived Free Jazz quartet led by Bobby Bradford [LOVE'S DREAM - Emanem 4096]. Although he came from a different background, Carter fitted in with the SME very well. Another indication of his breadth came later in 1974 when he recorded his first collection of solos and multi-tracks [BEAUVAIS CATHEDRAL - Emanem 4061].

For most of 1973, the duo SME performances of Stevens and Watts were very austere, concentrating on performances of the hyper-minimalist piece FLOWER. This piece was performed on October 11, and can be heard on FRAMEWORKS (Emanem 4134). The two duo pieces that preceded it that evening reveal other aspects of their repertoire.

CORSOP may well be a version of LACE, Stevens' piece inspired by Steve Lacy's sucking sounds. Note the section exploring the threshold of audibility - an area that became fashionable some two decades later. (Other musicians such as Paul Rutherford were also then exploring such quiet and tranquil areas.)

DAA-OOM, is a loose composition inspired by the music of both the central African pygmies and Albert Ayler. This was designed to be performed by a trio, as happened a few days later. Even decades later, the rawness of these pieces is still somewhat startling. When first issued, a famous musician described Stevens' vocal work as 'virtuosic', whereas an infamous writer called it 'ghastly'.

In the months prior to the quintet concert, there had been several trio performances at the Little Theatre Club. Bailey joined the Stevens/Watts duo there on at least four occasions [DYNAMICS OF THE IMPROMTU - Entropy 004]. There was a trio session with Parker (which does not seem to have survived on tape) following on from his participation in an Amalgam session, which was just about the first time that he had worked with Stevens for several years.

The results of an informal trio session on one of Carter’s visits to London are heard here. Three pieces were performed. The first, RAMBUNCTIOUS 1, is heard in its entirety - it is perhaps the closest thing to Jazz on these two CDs. The second, RAMBUNCTIOUS 2, was similar but less successful, so only the ending is included here. The third was based on Stevens' loose composition DAA-OOM, which takes its name from the bass part (missing in the earlier duo performance). The performance ran out of steam after about five minutes, so only the opening is heard. (When this session was first released, a reviewer wrote that this trio comprised Bailey, Carter & Stevens, and even went so far to compare it with that trio's later record!)

In the eighty-five minute ICA concert, all five musicians managed to both sound like themselves and sound like a group - a paradox that all good improvisers solve by listening to what the others are playing, and responding accordingly. This music is not an example of everyone going all out for themselves regardless of everyone else.

When John Stevens put this quintet together, he had envisioned that Derek Bailey would play acoustic guitar and Kent Carter cello. This instrumentation never happened in practice, since Bailey only used his unamplified '19-string (approx)' guitar during the second quarter of THIRTY-FIVE MINUTES whilst Carter was playing double bass, which he did for the first half of that piece. For the rest of the concert, Bailey used his 6-string guitar with two-pedal-controlled stereo amplification, and Carter played cello.

John Stevens' percussion kit comprised small cymbals and small drums with some bells and woodblocks. Both Evan Parker (heard on the left) and Trevor Watts (on the right) just(!) played soprano saxophones.

The first half of the concert consisted of one improvisation, FORTY MINUTES, which is included in full. The second half consisted of two improvisations, which are presented in the order performed. THIRTY-FIVE MINUTES has been edited very slightly in order to remove two brief moments of untogetherness - the total amount excised being less than one minute (the same as on prior releases). TEN MINUTES is complete as performed.

Even after listening to this music many times, it is still full of many surprises - very pleasant surprises, that is. However, the unexpected is what one expects when one puts five seasoned and original improvisers together. Certainly, anyone who likes all music to be completely predictable will get very little satisfaction here.

A few weeks after this concert, there was an unrecorded quartet session - Carter having by then returned to France. (There was also a trio performance by Bailey, Carter and Stevens at the Unity Theatre sometime that year, but it seems to have been forgotten since it was both untogether and unrecorded.) Some two years later, the SME underwent a drastic change in personnel, so that none of the musicians heard here were group members any more, apart from John Stevens.

Spontaneous Music Ensemble - 1995 - Summer 1967

Spontaneous Music Ensemble 
Summer 1967

01. Listening Together 1 4:41
02. Listening Together 2 8:41
03. Listening Together 3 4:44
04. Listening Together 4 4:26
05. Listening Together 5 7:18
06. First Cousins 14:38
07. Second Cousins 11:15
08. Echo Chamber Music 1 5:05
09. Echo Chamber Music 2 3:04
10. Echo Chamber Music 3 2:12

Double Bass – Peter Kowald (tracks: 6, 7)
Percussion – John Stevens
Soprano Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone – Evan Parker

All analogue recordings made in London
1-5: 1967 August 16
6-7: 1967 August 1 (?). Recorded at Les Cousins coffee bar.
8-10: 1967 September 17

LOOKING BACK. I interviewed EVAN PARKER in 1997 for the magazine Opprobrium, and asked him if he found playing with the SME restrictive at all.

I didn't feel particularly restrained. I felt a lot of what John was talking about, or the kind of method, such as there was one, was based on several quite simple rules: (1) if you can't hear somebody else you are playing too loud, and (2) if what you are doing does not, at regular intervals, make reference to what you are hearing other people do, you might as well not be playing in the group. I mean I've put it in my own language, but those were maybe the two most important lessons that John wanted people to learn when they played with SME. And so there was what you can call a compositional aesthetic which required musicians to work with those two kind of rules or ideals in mind.

A CONTEMPORANEOUS VIEW. The following review of an SME (John Stevens & Evan Parker) performance at the Little Theatre Club in London, was written by VICTOR SCHONFIELD in 1967 September. It was first published in the 1968 January 11 edition of Down Beat, and is reprinted with permission.

Stevens began presenting free improvisation sessions several nights a week at this club nearly two years ago. Since then, the club and the various editions of his Spontaneous Music Ensemble have been the focal points of the new freedom in Britain. The SME does not employ themes, frameworks for improvisations, regular tempos, or passages where a single player dominates, and melodies are of the a- or pan-tonal kind one would expect.

The current group was formed some months ago, and has been concerned with eliminating not just dominant individual contributions but individual parts as such. Each man plays responses to the other's work rather than his own and seems careful to avoid either imposing his own pattern on the music or using the other's playing as a background for a self-contained, self-expressing statement.

Both Stevens' and Parker's phrases are short and asymmetrical in themselves as well as by comparison with the phrases before and after, and although Stevens' rests are far briefer than Parker's, the two parts overlap in such a way that neither can be isolated and studied for long.

The surface of the SME's music is austere and varies little from moment to moment or piece to piece, the pieces being roughly 15 minutes of sound and silence, defined by longer silences, during which the musicians stop listening to each other. The noise-level rarely rises above moderate, and the textures of short-noted phrases are sparse and lucid.

Stevens has a marvellous facility for coining successive contrasting figures, each with its clear and lively speed, shape, and melodic colour. Currently, however, he intersperses these with less-defined equally spaced or eddying rolls, which do not move to a new part of the kit with each stroke, so that his work has calm, as well as nervous activity.

In addition to a fairly conventional grouping of drums and cymbals, his kit includes a stand to which are attached bongos, cowbells, and small cymbals in rows of four, and also a gong that, when given a slow tattoo, yields a sound in which three pitches are prominent at once.

Stevens often places his sounds in contexts that give them an explicit pitch, and his attention to detail (fine shadings of dynamics and timbre, different cycles of growth and decay, all from one basic sound) is exquisite.

Parker's style is unique, and I find it harder to describe than any other conception I have heard in the new music. His sound is flinty and rather staccato; variations of character between notes are restricted in range; his rhythms are fitful, and his melodies suggest a minor key. The outline of every phrase is both forbidding and similar to every other phrase, yet neither of these factors seems to be the key to his music.

The temptation is to say that his work is immature, or maybe a case of discontinuous improvising within preposterously narrow boundaries. The fact that inexperienced listeners hear every new player like this, plus the unmistakable purity and individuality of his work, makes me certain that any serious listener must persevere with Parker just the same.

Parker and Stevens seemed to break through to a deeper level of hearing, where a sound was not set against other sounds but rather against the silence around it, so that one gained heightened awareness of its growth and decay, its special colour, and of the vibrant stillness in which it took place. The outward sign of this was not silence itself, but very quiet sounds, sounds that were not cut off but allowed to decompose in their own way, in their own time, before being replaced.


Early in 1967, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) (1966-1994) was a septet comprised of Kenny Wheeler, Paul Rutherford, Trevor Watts, Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Barry Guy and John Stevens. They mainly used compositional frameworks and much instrumental doubling to make music with a large variety of colours, but had already moved a long way from the world of jazz in which they had started. On their recordings (issued in 1997 for the first time as WITHDRAWAL on Emanem 4020), Parker's presence is hardly noticed - he says he felt overawed in such company.

During the spring of that year, Stevens took over as sole leader, and instigated a change of direction towards a conversational type of free improvisation which put everyone on an equal footing. The emphasis was for each musician to listen to the contributions of the others rather than concentrate on their on their own playing - the antithesis of most of the then (and now) prevailing trends in music. This required Stevens to move from a conventional drum kit to a quieter collection of small drums and cymbals and other percussion - allowing other instruments to be able to converse on the same level.

Not all the other musicians immediately went along with this change of direction, and by the start of the summer the only full time members of the SME were Stevens and Parker, with Wheeler and/or Bailey added from time to time. In the autumn, Barre Phillips (on an extended stay in London) was often added, and in the winter, Dave Holland joined in, resulting in what was the second published SME recording - KARYOBIN (reissued on Chronoscope CD CPE2001-2

This disc contains the only known recordings of the duo of John Stevens (1940-1994) and Evan Parker (b. 1944) made during the nine months or so they were a trailblazing working duo. They subsequently made excellent duo records for Ogun in 1976 and 1993 - but that is another story. The first duo session here is superb in both contents and sound (albeit in mono). The second is a concert recording with ghastly echo, but the music manages to shine through.

The trio session with Peter Kowald (b. 1944), who was in London for a short vacation, was recorded at Les Cousins coffee bar. It also suffers somewhat, this time from an imperfect recording of the bass, and from a noisy audience. What were they talking about? Was it really more important than the music? Again, one has to live with these defects in order to hear the only known recordings of this significant meeting - the occasion being the first time the three played together.

Spontaneous Music Ensemble - 1977 - Biosystem

Spontaneous Music Ensemble 

01. Biosystem
02. Mystery
03. Saved By The Bell
04. Replanted
05. Back To The Beginning For The First Time

Cello – Colin Wood
Guitar – Roger Smith
Percussion, Cornet – John Stevens
Violin – Nigel Coombes

Recorded at Riverside Studios, London 28 June 1977.

Emanem has been the bastion of SME releases for years now; without the label, John Stevens' legacy would be a fading memory, despite his lasting influence on a generation of players. However, this SME release—dating from 1977—appears on Psi rather than Emanem, as it was originally released on Incus (incidentally, making it the first Incus re-release on Psi not to feature Evan Parker).
This recording was a radical departure for SME; it saw the grouping completely move away from horns (Parker, Trevor Watts) to a quieter soundscape that, apart from Stevens occasional interjection on cornet, only featured strings. Apart from two live recordings on Low Profile (on Emanem), this release is the only recording of the foursome including Colin Wood on cello; SME would continue gigging intermittently for years as the threesome of Stevens, Coombes and Smith—occasionally augmented by guest musicians. (And in 1992, SME reintroduced sax, when John Butcher joined. But that is another chapter.)

Although the instrumentation was a radical departure, much of the methodology employed by the foursome retains clear links with previous incarnations of SME. As has been observed by Martin Davidson, this foursome may have contained one too many string instruments, as the sound has an occasional tendency to get cluttered and for there to be a lack of space. However, the key word in that sentence is "occasional. More often, the interactions between the four players produce focused, coherent, telepathic group playing. For a prime example, dip into "Replanted. For over fourteen minutes, it is a sustained exercise in discipline, the concentration of all four players being almost tangible; but the resulting music never sounds strained or forced, rather it flows around between the players with a logic that seems flawless and natural.

For this CD issue, much previously unreleased material has been added to the original LP material, greatly enhancing it. Most impressively, the last three tracks play as one continuous piece, adding some 25 minutes to the original two minutes of "Saved by the Bell. Again, it is the combination of the four players that is remarkable, rather than that of any individual; at times the sounds of the three string players virtually combine into one, with Stevens cymbal-laden playing distinguishable but totally integrated into the whole. Exemplary group improvisation.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Spontaneous Music Ensemble - 1975 - Face to Face

Spontaneous Music Ensemble
Face to Face

01. Preface To Face A 3:30
02. Preface To Face B 4:16
03. Face To Face 1 10:34
04. Face To Face 2 Middle 4:06
05. Face To Face 2 End 1:38
06. Face To Face 3 3:57
07. Face To Face 4 5:29
08. Face To Face 5 9:15
09. Face To Face 6 4:48
10. Face To Face 7 Middle & End 10:16

All analogue recordings made in London at the Little Theatre Club
1-3: 1973 November 29
4-9: 1973 December 6
10: 1973 December 14

3-4 & 6-10 originally issued in 1975 as Emanem LP 303 Spontaneous Music Ensemble - Face To Face
1-2 & 5 previously unissued


Face to face means exactly that. When Trevor and I perform it, we are seated to enable the drums and the saxophone to be approximately on the same level. We face each other and play at each other, allowing the music to take place somewhere in the middle. This is very much an outward process. We are trying to be a total ear to the other player, allowing our own playing to be of secondary importance, apart from something that enables the other player to follow the same process - the main priority being to hear the other player totally. Both players are working at this simultaneously. At this stage we are not aware of the total sound of the two players. When we arrive at hearing the other player completely and playing (almost subconsciously) for his sake at the same time, we then allow ourselves to bring into focus the duo sound. Up to this point we've let our own personal playing function in an unconscious way. From then on we start to converse naturally, retaining the group awareness we've developed between us. Free group improvisation is our aim, and a preparation piece like this is to aid us to achieve the concentration required for the best results. The actual process, loosely described in these notes, may only take a few seconds, but those few seconds are significant in getting us beyond ourselves and into the music. Trevor and I have been the best of friends since 1959, and would like to feel that this, our first duo record, is a good example of that friendship.


John Stevens (1940-1994) and Trevor Watts (b. 1939) first met in 1959 when they (and Paul Rutherford) were in the Royal Air Force. They re-met in 1965, when Stevens became the drummer in the quintet co-led by Watts and Rutherford. With the opening of the Little Theatre Club at the beginning of 1966, that group became the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME). The personnel evolved over the next year. Early in 1967 Stevens had become the sole leader, and the other members were Watts, Rutherford, Kenny Wheeler, Evan Parker, Derek Bailey and Barry Guy. By the middle of that year, with a change of musical direction to the beginning of what is generally considered SME music, the group had reduced to the duo of Stevens and Parker, with other musicians added on an ad hoc basis. Watts, meanwhile, formed the first version of Amalgam with Guy and others.

In the Spring of 1968, Parker left the SME, and Watts rejoined - Stevens and Watts becoming the mainstay of the group until 1976. Once again, various musicians were added on an ad hoc basis, and some joined for extended periods, notably, Maggie Nicols, Johnny Dyani, Mongezi Feza, Julie Tippett and Ron Herman. Stevens also joined Amalgam, which coexisted and continued to explore more jazz related areas during this period.

In 1976, Watts left the SME and Stevens left Amalgam, with the two of them rarely working together thereafter. From 1976 to 1992, the SME was the trio of Stevens, Nigel Coombes and Roger Smith, and at the time of Stevens' untimely death, John Butcher had replaced Coombes. Amalgam continued for some years with Watts, who eventually replaced it with his various groups going under the general name of Moiré Music.

During the latter half of 1973, the SME was just the duo of Stevens and Watts. The two had become extremely close musically, and the music had become very austere - stripped down to the bare essentials. The end result was at times akin to one person playing two instruments, unlike so many duos which sound like two people playing solo simultaneously. This could be called minimalist music, if that term had not been hijacked by the school of ad nauseam mechanical repetition.

The main piece performed during this period was entitled FLOWER. This can, perhaps, best be described as sub-minimal - it certainly makes the music on this disc sound decidedly rococo! After this exercise in hyper-austerity, the duo was ready to make the magnificent music heard herein.

All of the versions of FACE TO FACE recorded are now included on this disc, although numbers 2 and 7 have been edited. (The first two pieces were not included on the original LP due to lack of space. Since they were performed before the piece that came to be titled FACE TO FACE 1, they have been called PREFACE TO FACE.) Although all the pieces start off from the same premise, and bear similar titles, they end up encompassing a considerable range of expression, with each one capable of standing on its own. They were highly influential when they were first released, and are still worthy of further investigation.

Spontaneous Music Ensemble - 1974 - Bobby Bradford with John Stevens & The Spontaneous Music Ensemble

Spontaneous Music Ensemble 
Bobby Bradford with John Stevens & The Spontaneous Music Ensemble

101. His Majesty Louis
102. Bridget's Mother
103. Room 408
104. Tolerance/To Bob

201. Trane Ride / Ornette-ment / Doo Dee
202. Norway
203. Rhythm Piece
204. Fragment

Bobby Bradford—trumpet
Trevor Watts—alto & soprano saxophones
Bob Norden—trombone
Julie Tippetts—voice & guitar
Ron Herman—bass
John Stevens—drums, percussion & voice

The music on this album is one of the many results of the daring simplifications which Ornette Coleman achieved for jazz in the late fifties and early sixties. Briefly, he freed the music from its structural dependence on the European harmonic system, placing the emphasis instead on melodic and rhythmic development, and upon collective, rather than solo, improvisation. Specifically, the performers here show the variety of expression this freedom makes possible. True, the horns have not quite purged themselves of harmonic consciousness, and sometimes we can, with hindsight, read a sequence of chords into some of their individual phrases; but nearly always the implications of this are contradicted by what somebody else is playing at the same time. The lack of a harmonic dimension never seems like a restriction, however, because of the music's unflagging contrapuntal richness. Each instrumental line grows partly by reaction to ideas produced by the others, partly by a more or less deliberate motivic development in the manner of Ornette Coleman, and partly by a style of free association which is all this group's own.
The Spontaneous Music Ensemble's roots are obvious from their earlier recordings, but for some years now this group has been pursuing a fruitful path which leads far away from outmoded conventions, and their work is shaped by a perfectly individual method and style. It can be remarkably varied in its sensuous and emotional impact, yet this music establishes its own rules of expression and organization and persuades the attentive listener to accept them.
Here the S. M. E. is heard with a guest, Bobby Bradford, who, with John Carter, leads a comparable group, called the New Art Jazz Ensemble, which has made several recordings of its own on the West Coast of the U.S.A. But almost throughout this session each player's contribution is submerged in the collective personality of the group, this being especially so on Tolerance/ To Bob, which presents a unified texture wherein each line is acutely responsive to the others. Any one instrumental part can be followed for its own sake, yet to listen in that way is to miss a great deal of this music's point. Its melodic and rhythmic emphases shift restlessly throughout, but, although the phrases often are unsparingly discontinuous, the vitality of the whole is such that every detail finds a meaningful place.
His Majesty Louis, a piece by Bobby Bradford, is a tribute to Louis Armstrong, master of an earlier phase of jazz. Here one's overriding impression is of the sheer variety of the music's gesture. The ensemble is king, the lines closely related and quickly responsive to each other, but a regular jazz pulse soon establishes itself. This appears to impart a degree of security to the performers, and their ideas become more adventurous, more immediately striking. Yet still they are accommodated within the ensemble and there are no real solos. At one point Bradford is briefly heard with only Ron Herman's support, but John Stevens before long adds so detailed and enhancing a commentary that it seems reasonable to ask who is accompanying whom. Quite often as in a New Orleans jazz ensemble, the line produced by one player has greater importance than the rest, yet this lead readily changes hands, the situation remaining forever fluid, its stresses shifting as in an intense conversation where new ideas are constantly minted. Even later, when the tempo slackens, the musical argument on this remains as cogent as before.
On Bridget's Mothemo single participant dominates, but the whole is quite positively coloured by the presence of Julie Tippetts's voice. This piece is an especially good illustration of the extent to which contrapuntal diversity compensates for the music's lack of a harmonic plane. There is a seeming paradox, also, in the fact that this track has the effect of a mournful dirge, the discontinuity of its phrases and textures notwithstanding.
Room 408, again by Bobby Bradford, is more hard-boiled, its lines of stronger sinew, the ideas more closely packed. Yet even in this hectic atmosphere, although the performance is largely activated by John Stevens's drums, Bobby Bradford, Trevor Watts and Bob Norden all project distinct personalities throughout. Indeed, there is another apparent paradox in the fact that each seems to become more himself, more individual, through surrender to, and participation in, the voice of the ensemble. Just as in His Majesty Louis where the speed decreases without the music's substance growing diffuse, so here in Room 408 the texture of the collective improvisation latterly becomes less dense without any loss of expressive point.
[The next performance] is based on two John Stevens themes, Tolerance and To Bob. The beginning is free, purer, almost timeless, and quite often this music is more oblique in its impact. Again, though, the colour, texture, volume and density of the heterophonic sound-mass alters slowly but constantly, the instrumental lines sometimes herding close together, at other points drifting far apart. Here and there it sounds as if the music were about to run down, yet repeatedly it gathers new strength and sets off in a fresh direction. Some of these new starts are simple, almost formal, but gradually the music boils up into highly detailed group improvisations of impressive textural complexity. Such a performance, in fact, is a good instance of the variety of expression which the Spontaneous Music Ensemble's method can encompass, for each climax, or point of highest intensity, is arrived at by a different route from the others. Indeed, the technique of collective improvisation is the whole raison d'etre of the music.
In the end the generating tension of the music is spent and, once more, evaporates. The texture clears, the instrumental lines become more distinct, more sharply separated. Now the phrases are no longer broken off, or contradicted by others, and this music's innate lyricism flowers at last. Yet despite such a relaxation the musical argument remains pointed until the last, and these performances prove that individual freedom can paradoxically lead to collective discipline. And vice versa.
Trane Ride is, of course, a tribute to John Coltrane—without any attempt to duplicate his style of playing—and its punning title evidently stimulated a slightly onomatopoeic beginning. Yet the main thing is the musical conversation between Trevor Watts and Bobby Bradford, each pursuing a quite different type of phrase-structure from the other but their two lines fitting together excellently, the seeming contradictions reconciled by the unflagging momentum of the whole. This is linked with two other themes by John Stevens, Ornette-ment, a salute to another great American jazz musician, Ornette Coleman, and Doo Dee. In the latter part of this collective improvisation the threads are drawn tighter as the trumpet and saxophone lines become more enmeshed in the furious commentary of bass and drums, which by now have abandoned their opening train rhythms. By this point, in fact, John Stevens is playing a leading role and in response Bobby Bradford produces phrases which are more static, more fanfare-like, while Trevor Watts, now on soprano saxophone, attains still greater mobility than before. Such a performance appears to be self-generating, to create energy as it unfolds, yet finally all tension evaporates and the music dies in fugitive murmurings which in themselves imply a fresh start.
At first, Norway, a theme by John Stevens, is simple and songlike; the melody is played, with a seemingly casual togetherness, by the horns and voice, underscored by the bass. Slowly, while the mood remains lyrical, the texture grows more complex, its lines separating and going their own ways. Yet despite this independence, they remain closely related in feeling and in musical invention. The brief Fragment, with its brooding, valedictory air is in the same lyrical climate of Norway, yet there are noticeable differences, the melodic lines being longer, simpler, more pithy in content.
Record buyers who have found themselves sympathetic to the jazz of the sixties and seventies should find this music rewarding but not too difficult. Much of its character derives from what may be called the depth of its sound, this, as the foregoing paragraphs should have made clear, being made up of several restlessly mobile parts. This constant shifting of melodic and rhythmic emphasis, the kaleidoscopic rearrangement of always-new aural patterns, lends each piece a many-sided expressiveness no matter how well defined its prevailing mood. To get the best out of this music, therefore, a listener needs to be constantly attentive, but in return for such application each of these performances will give ample satisfaction.

Max Harrison

These notes were written, in the early '70s, for two proposed records on the Freedom label, only one of which was issued. I have combined the two with slight editing to remove references to a different program sequence. The recording of Rhythm Piece was being held for a different coupling and is not mentioned.

Spontaneous Music Ensemble - 1973 - So, What Do You Think

Spontaneous Music Ensemble 
So, What Do You Think

01. So, What Do You Think?

Cello [Uncredited], Bass – Dave Holland
Drums, Composed By – John Stevens
Guitar – Derek Bailey
Soprano Saxophone – Trevor Watts
Trumpet, Flugelhorn – Kenny Wheeler

Recorded at Tangent, London 27th January 1971.

The SME’s music can be seen in part as one answer to the problem of motion in music, as an attempt to synthesize linear and non-linear movement within a looser improvisational context without one seeming to take precedence over the other. Cecil Taylor, of course, forged something of his own intensely compacted solution to this problem, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s procedural and stylistic stream-of-consciousness was another. But only in England has this been at the heart of any on-going musical investigations – as a result of which certain of the English musicians have come to stand in the forefront of contemporary improvisation.
The Source is a composition in several parts (by John Stevens) whose principal aesthetic thrust stems more from Coltrane’s Ascension than from anything else. There are long, drawn-out lines that serve either as a basis for improvisation or as something to improvise against; or, at times, are ignored altogether. But, as absorbing as this piece is, it is not as dark or raucous a work as Ascension and, like Coltrane’s recording, tends as much to accentuate as to come to grips with the problem of motion. That is part of its attractiveness, but it is not as advanced as certain other English music from this time (the ground-breaking Topography of the Lungs, Incus 1, for example) nor does it offer as many implications for further development as an earlier SME recording, “Oliv II” (1969), on the out-of-print Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Marmalade 608 008).
“So What Do You Think?” suggests much more. Compositionally, the piece (in two parts) is credited to John Stevens, but it seems to be almost entirely improvised. Built on and around any number of quick, discontinuous motifs, there is a sense (during “Part One” anyway) that the piece could begin or end anywhere. It is clearly going someplace, but it doesn’t seem to matter whether or not it ever really gets there. Its investigations may in fact be only of a minute area – much like watching cell activity under a microscope – or it may be all-encompassing. It is not really certain and, in a sense, it doesn’t matter. It merely exists as itself and, in its agitation, presents multiple pathways into and out of that self. Its form is neither linear nor non-linear, yet it might be thought of as either.
“Part Two” is built on similar principles, but at times there is a deliberate falling back into relatively more conventional linear movement; this is juxtaposed by the type of activity referred to above. “Part Two” is less important for its juxtapositions, but its tentative retreats allow the further advances of “Part One” to stand out all the more clearly. That part, as noted, is particularly provocative and should be heard and absorbed.

Spontaneous Music Ensemble – 1971 - Birds Of A Feather

Spontaneous Music Ensemble 
Birds Of A Feather

01. One, two, Albert Ayler (Stevens)          
02. Birds of a feather (Stevens)
03. Nothing (Stevens)
04. Chains (Stevens)

Trevor Watts - soprano sax
Ron Herman - bass
John Stevens - drums
Julie Tippetts - vocals & guitar

Recorded Herouville July 27th, 1971.

Spontaneous Music Ensemble - 1970 - The Source - From And Towards

Spontaneous Music Ensemble
The Source - From And Towards

01. Part One: Expectancy
02. Part Two: Birth
03. Part Three: Thanksgiving
04. Part Four: Time Goes On (Version A)
05. Part Four: Time Goes On (Version B)
06. Part Four: Time Goes On (Version C)
07. Part Five: You Know

Trevor Watts - alto & soprano sax
Ray Warleigh - alto sax, flute
Brian Smith - tenor & soprano sax
Ken Wheeler - trumpet, flugelhorn
Bob Norden - trombone
Chris Pyne - trombone
Mike Pyne - piano
Ron Matthewson - bass (left channel)
Marcio Mattos - bass (right channel)
John Stevens - drums, composition

Recorded on 18th November 1970

Massive stuff from these free jazz underground classics. A beautiful natural flow, finding it's paths through absolute chaos.

Spontaneous Music Ensemble - 1969 - John Stevens Spontaneous Music Ensemble

Spontaneous Music Ensemble 
John Stevens Spontaneous Music Ensemble

01. Oliv I
02. Oliv II

Alto Saxophone – Trevor Watts
Bass – Johnny Dyani
Electric Guitar – Derek Bailey
Flugelhorn – Kenny Wheeler
Percussion, Glockenspiel – John Stevens
Piano – Peter Lemer
Vocals – Carolann Nicholls, Maggie Nichols, Pepi Lemer

Alto Saxophone – Trevor Watts
Bass – Johnny Dyani
Percussion, Glockenspiel – John Stevens
Vocals – Maggie Nichols

When a recording opportunity arose around this time, John Stevens was inclined to put together a special group, rather than just use the current working version of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Thus the OLIV I line-up was put together just to record two of his pieces in the studio, only one of which ended up on the original LP. All of the performers were given particular roles. Kenny Wheeler’s was to act rather like a jazz soloist, while Derek Bailey was free to comment throughout. The saxophone and three vocalists functioned as a drone, and the piano, bass and drums acted as a jazz rhythm section. (Note that Carolann Nicholls reappeared decades later on record as Carolann Jackson.)

OLIV I begins with a statement of the theme written by John Stevens with words by Maggie Nicols. This leads into a particularly beautiful section in which Wheeler and Bailey improvise over just the drone. Then the static drone is joined by the forward-driving rhythm section, to produce a push-pull backdrop that is inherently contradictory and full of tension. After listening to this for over 40 years, I’m still not convinced it makes sense, but it does result in some superlative playing from both of the soloists, before finishing in a somewhat extended coda.

A second piece by this nine-piece group did not result in a satisfactory performance, so it was decided on the spot to record a another performance utilising the same starting material with just the then current SME quartet – John Stevens, Trevor Watts, Maggie Nicols and Johnny Dyani. The result, OLIV II, is one of the classic recorded performances of that era or any other.

OLIV II, which became the second side of the LP, also begins with the theme statement, but then goes into a very fine quartet improvisation in which all four musicians have equal roles, without any of the hierarchical functions associated with jazz. Stevens uses his small SME drum kit, which was designed to have the same volume level as other unamplified instruments. Unusually for this type of music, Watts plays alto saxophone rather than soprano. He also holds back a bit more than normal so as not to overwhelm the new singer, Nicols, who recently said: "It was indeed my very first recording and I was so scared of doing bebop licks, that I didn’t use any consonants at all!" Dyani shows himself to be a very adaptable bass player who often found unique ways to fit in without being at all disruptive. The performance ends with two basic Stevens concepts, namely a Sustained Piece and a Click Piece.

On gigs, this group was sometimes augmented by either Carolann Nicholls or Kenny Wheeler to become a quintet. The former was on board when the SME played a Berlin festival late in 1968 – a performance that flummoxed and perturbed the brute-force improvisers who were then prevalent there. Later in 1969, Maggie Nicols was replaced by Mongezi Feza resulting in a quartet that does not seem to have been recorded. We must be thankful that OLIV II was recorded even though it was almost by accident.

Spontaneous Music Ensemble - 1968 - Karyobin

Spontaneous Music Ensemble 

01. Karyobin Pt. 1 8:04
02. Karyobin Pt. 2 5:37
03. Karyobin Pt. 3 6:24
04. Karyobin Pt. 4 6:23
05. Karyobin Pt. 5 12:41
06. Karyobin Pt. 6 9:52

Bass – Dave Holland
Drums – John Stevens
Electric Guitar – Derek Bailey
Soprano Saxophone – Evan Parker
Trumpet, Flugelhorn – Kenny Wheeler

Recorded at Olympic Sound Studios 18/2/68.

Second album by the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, retaining two musicians from the initial 1966 set (trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and drummer John Stevens) and adding Evan Parker on soprano, guitarist Derek Bailey and bassist Dave Holland. The young British all-stars (all virtually unknown at the time) stretch out on the six-part "Karyobin," playing quite freely in an idiom influenced a bit by their American contemporaries but already on its way to developing a more European sound. Bailey is mostly in the background with the key voices being Wheeler and Parker, but all five musicians make their contributions. The music is episodic and ends inconclusively but rewards repeated listenings. An important early recording for these five future greats.

Guitarist Derek Bailey was the type of guy to see the Jackson Pollack splatter painting on the cover of Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz and wonder, "So, why would that have a frame?" In 1968, the English improv visionary launched his career with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, scraping out jagged shards of jazz that felt truly free — abandoning structure, melody, rhythm, and logic in favor of an ever-changing, whimsical, disorienting, wholly instinctual tumult of activity. The players engage in a complex conversation — horn players Kenny Wheeler and Evan Parker, in particular, chatter at each other like chickens — that cycles through moods and dynamics with controlled abandon. The sound is ultimately a looser version of Beefheart's wet-galoshes stomp or Coleman's melodic warfare transmogrified into a tangle of noodles.

The Spontaneous Music Ensemble was one of the first flowerings of a fertile British improvised music scene that would flourish through the ’70s and beyond. The SME was a loose collective centered around drummer John Stevens and, in its first decade, saxophonist Trevor Watts. Stevens was partially inspired by the example set by his contemporaries in AMM, but in forging his own take on improvised music, he deliberately did not go as far as AMM in rejecting his jazz background. SME music was freely improvised, without reference to underlying structures or overt jazz idioms, but the overall sound nevertheless retained a connection to jazz – and to the conventional ways of playing acoustic instruments – that ran counter to AMM’s ideas.

Even so, Stevens was an innovator and a radical in his own right. His ensemble, with its shifting membership and invention of “insect improv” – quiet but paradoxically busy music with a great deal of responsiveness between the players – was massively influential. The group’s first album, Challenge, from 1966, had been unambiguous free jazz, featuring a quintet playing compositions by Stevens, Watts, and trombonist Paul Rutherford. By the time the second album appeared two years later, Stevens had made a breakthrough. Challenge had been rather unexciting and predictable; Karyobin was clearly something new. The music sounds like jazz broken down into the tiniest possible fragments and then stitched back together, all atomized pinpricks driven relentlessly forward by the unceasing creativity of Stevens’ tinkling, sizzling, fluid drumming.

The SME’s membership had changed considerably between the two albums, as it would continue to do with each new record. Only Stevens and trumpet/flugelhorn player Kenny Wheeler returned, making Karyobin the sole SME album from the group’s first decade on which Watts did not appear. The lineup was filled out by saxophonist Evan Parker, guitarist Derek Bailey, and bassist Dave Holland. Though all of these musicians would become well-known names in jazz and free improv, none of them besides Wheeler had had any substantial exposure prior to Karyobin. This was Parker’s first appearance on record, and one of the first for both Bailey and Holland. The quintet formed a continuum in its relationship to jazz, with Stevens in the center. While Parker and Bailey had instincts pushing away from jazz, and would pursue that direction ever further in the next few decades, Wheeler would spend much of his career outside the SME in jazz groups, and in the same year as Karyobin, Holland appeared on two of Miles Davis’ early electric period records. Both Wheeler and Holland would go on to become key members of Anthony Braxton’s ’70s bands, thus bringing their SME background to an avant-jazz context.

It is impossible to hear Karyobin today from the same perspective with which listeners must have approached it in 1968. The influence of this record and these players has just been too pervasive, and this sound, with its pronounced ties to jazz, is today not at the vanguard of “out” music the way it was when it first appeared. Heard for the first time any time after, say, 1971, by which time its aesthetic had thoroughly taken hold, Karyobin couldn’t be too startling or outré, but it retains a freshness and vitality that all too many documents of this era have long ago lost, or never had in the first place.

The emphasis that Stevens placed on listening to – and musically conversing with – other musicians defined the SME and the school of improv it birthed. The music is dense and busy, with a jittery quality that only rarely leaves much space or quiet, but unlike a lot of free jazz from the era, the players weren’t merely soloing wildly atop one another. There’s always a sense that each player is trying to fit into the overall sound, to interweave his own sounds with those of the others. As the first piece starts, Wheeler and Parker solo simultaneously, but their lines aren’t competing or stepping on one another. The horns dance and wind around each other, serpentine and restless, characterized by short, sharp notes and abrupt shifts in pace and style. The two horn soloists, playing with phenomenal intuition and coordination, each fill in spaces left by the other – no easy trick given the density and speed of the playing.

For all its inventiveness and departures from tradition, this is still quite jazzy music. The horns often take the lead role while Stevens, Bailey, and Holland form an unconventional rhythm section. They don’t keep time in the jazz sense, but their interjections are usually in the background, laying a foundation for the horns. Parker and Wheeler seldom lay out to cast a spotlight on that background, though midway through the first piece is a brief and lovely section where they do just that, with Stevens’ tinkly drums a highlight of this comparatively tranquil breather.

The album is in constant motion and upheaval, and though the overall effect is of uniformity, there’s a great deal of variety within its spiky, nervous style. On the fourth track, Wheeler plays a few bars of surprisingly straightforward balladic jazz trumpet, soon answered by Parker’s more atonal squeals on the soprano sax. The fifth track, the longest at nearly 13 minutes, allows for more of a patient pace, with a lengthy introduction in which the musicians play slower than usual, with the horns spitting out long, lazy tones atop Stevens’ stop/start rhythms. Bailey inserts chunks of feedback and low-key melodic plucking. The music keeps building to passages of more frenzied interplay only to fall apart whenever Stevens drops out, encouraging a return to brief silences and the atomization of the ensemble’s individual elements. Only at the very end is the group allowed to really cut loose in a more sustained way, resulting in one of the only times on the record that the quintet unfortunately falls into the paradigm of a chaotic free jazz blowing session.

Much of the rest of the time, the playing is sensitive and reactive, maybe even to a fault. Already it’s possible to hear the ways in which the Stevens “insect improv” aesthetic would lead to dead ends: each musician is so wrapped up in responding quickly to others’ ideas that the music almost inevitably falls into a pattern of rapid exchanges and maximum density. It’s generally not noisy music, but it’s also anything but relaxed: the horns are constantly criss-crossing and conversing, Stevens is a fount of musical ideas behind his kit, and Bailey gives the impression of very meticulously dropping his little gnarled notes into any stray space left unfilled by the others. Only Holland, patiently plucking away at the edges of the sound and generally fulfilling a far more traditional role on his instrument than the others, doesn’t contribute to the sense of constant chatter. When things do calm down slightly, as on parts of the last track, there’s often a tentative quality to the all-too-brief lulls, as though in the absence of a constant stream of sounds to react to, the musicians hesitate over what to do next.

Despite these caveats, Karyobin is not only an important foundational document for British improv – as earthshaking in its way as AMMMusic was – but a fascinating piece of music. The abstracted jazz of this quintet is full of energy, and not in the shallow, play-as-loud-as-possible fashion of so many free jazz saxophonists who learned all the wrong lessons from Albert Ayler. Free improv would sometimes retreat too far in the other direction in the decades to come, becoming insular and inexpressive, but that’s not even remotely a problem here. This is vital music played with a great deal of fire by young musicians still defining and refining their individual musical languages, and finding ingenious ways to make that exploration into a conversation between peers instead of a solitary effort.