Sunday, February 26, 2017

Spontaneous Music Ensemble - 1968 - Challenge

Spontaneous Music Ensemble 

01. E.D.'s Message 5:50
02. 2.B.Ornette 2:10
03. Club 66 8:40
04. Day Of Reckoning 7:20
05. Travelling Together 9:05
06. Little Red Head 4:00
07. After Listening 8:35
08. End To A Beginning 4:20

Alto Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone – Trevor Watts
Bass – Bruce Cale (tracks: A2 to B3), Jeff Clyne (tracks: A1, B4)
Drums – John Stevens
Flugelhorn – Kenny Wheeler
Trombone – Paul Rutherford

Recorded at K.P.S. Sound Studio on the 5th, 12th and 19th of March, 1966

Paul Rutherford, John Stevens and Trevor Watts met in 1959 when they were all in the Royal Air Force music school - a relatively painless and cheap way of getting a technical musical education. After leaving the RAF, Rutherford and Watts kept in close contact, sometimes co-leading a group, sometimes playing in the New Jazz Orchestra - a slightly adventurous big band. Both made their published recording debuts with the NJO in 1965.

Stevens became a member of the London modern jazz establishment, often working in Ronnie Scott's Club and other locales. There are unpublished recordings from late 1965 of him leading a modern jazz septet with Kenny Wheeler, Chris Pyne, Ray Warleigh, Alan Skidmore, Mike Pyne & Ron Mathewson. However, he did not appear on any published recordings before CHALLENGE, except on some pop singles with a group called The Carefrees. (One septet track did appear in 2012 on Reel Recordings 026.)

Two events at the end of 1965 and start of 1966 changed all this. First, Stevens met up again with Rutherford and Watts, and he became the drummer in their group. Second, The Little Theatre Club, in the centre of London's West End (in Garrick Yard near Leicester Square station), became available as a nightly base for the more adventurous musicians who wanted to take the music in directions beyond what was then the modern jazz norm.

The opening night of the Little Theatre Club on January 3 featured several groups, one of which was led by Watts with Rutherford, Stevens and two bass players - Jeff Clyne & John Ryan. Just over two months later CHALLENGE was recorded. In the interim, the group had become a co-operative and its name was changed to the Spontaneous Music Ensemble.

The music on CHALLENGE is largely in the free jazz idiom, with some items staying in tempo. Two of the titles (2.B.ORNETTE and E.D.'S MESSAGE) are dedicated to two of the principal influences - both then too way out for most of the establishment musicians. All of the composed themes by Rutherford, Stevens & Watts are very strong, as are the solo improvisational statements by all the musicians. The only obvious hints of what was to become the SME style of music occur in the collective improvisations on LITTLE RED HEAD and END TO A BEGINNING (particularly the second version that was used on the LP).

The other three musicians on these sessions, all of who had previously appeared on numerous published records, were people that Stevens had worked with on the modern jazz scene. Jeff Clyne has been a member of the London jazz fraternity since the late 1950s, making occasional forays into freer areas.

Kenny Wheeler came from Toronto to London for a two-week vacation in the early 1950s, and has lived here ever since. His unique angular lines always made him stand out as an individual voice in the modern jazz setting, so it is not surprising that Stevens asked him to join the SME. Wheeler had strong doubts about his ability to play in such a relatively free setting, but this recording (and others) show that these doubts were completely unfounded.

Bruce Cale was another modern jazz associate of Stevens. He was resident in London for a year and a half (1965-6), playing with many of the leading jazz musicians. He left to study at Berklee, and then settled in the San Francisco area for about a dozen years, before returning to his native Sydney. He now lives in the mountains of Queensland, and is mainly active as a symphonic composer.

These recordings (apart from the quartet version of END TO A BEGINNING) were issued briefly in mid-1966 on an LP on the short-lived Eyemark label, which otherwise specialised in recordings of railway steam engines and Jewish spoofs of Gilbert & Sullivan operas! Three recording dates (March 5, 12 & 19) were mentioned on the LP without any indication of what was recorded when. Trying to work out what was recorded at each session has proved virtually impossible. Based on musicians’ memories, and some sparse written evidence, it would seem that the two pieces on which Jeff Clyne replaces Bruce Cale were recorded in another studio some time after the March 19th session. Because of this uncertainty, the tracks are presented in the same order as on the LP, with the addition of the unissued item placed in between the two LP sides (as track 5).

The music evolved rapidly over next couple of years, thanks to the nightly explorations that were occurring at the Little Theatre Club. The recordings made in late 1966 and early 1967 (first issued in 1997 as WITHDRAWAL EMANEM 5040) show a remarkable change from the music of the CHALLENGE sessions.

The final track on this CD, DISTANT LITTLE SOUL, comes from shortly after the WITHDRAWAL sessions. Stevens and Watts were still on board. Stevens was still playing his fairly standard jazz drum kit - the small SME kit was still about three months in the future - while Watts was in a period when he was playing numerous wind instruments.

Evan Parker had joined the SME in the middle of 1966, but felt overawed in such company. This track is probably the earliest recorded example of him out of the shadows. Chris Cambridge was only around on the London music scene for a short period, and this may well be his only recording - which is a pity, because he sounds very good.

This very fine performance is, of course, not the end of the story. The music continued to evolve, as can be heard on subsequent recordings.

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