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.

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.