Sunday, February 26, 2017

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.

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