SPONTANEOUS MUSIC ENSEMBLE: FACE TO FACE
John Stevens / percussion and cornet, Trevor Watts / soprano saxophone.
Recorded: November 29, December 6 & 14,1973 at the Little Theatre Club, London.
AMALGAM play Blackwell and Higgins
Trevor Watts / alto saxophone, John Stevens / drums, Ron Herman / bass (on “Blackwell”), Jeff Cline / bass (on “Higgins”). Recorded: March 23, 1972 and January 24, 1974 in concert.
Much of the history of free music in England revolves around John Stevens and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Almost every important figure in the music there passed through and/or has been associated with the SME at one time, which was started in 1966 by Stevens, Trevor Watts, and trombonist Paul Rutherford. Evan Parker and Derek Bailey were both a part of the group in its earliest days and still occasionally work under its auspices. Kenny Wheeler was once a part of the group, as was Dave Holland. Since the SME’s beginnings, John Stevens has been its principal musical force and a major influence on just about everyone involved.
[John Stevens] Face To Face, then, not only presents some fine music; it is also the most recent documentation of musicians who have been a part of the English free scene since its inception and who, particularly in the case of Stevens, have helped to shape the underlying aesthetic of others. There is a profound empathy between John and Trevor on this recording which surely reflects their long-time work with each other. Their music moves at a measured pace but never cautiously and, while it does not “swing” in any traditional sense, it breathes freely and effortlessly and carries you with it. There is a finished quality to it, more so, say, than in Parker’s or Bailey’s work in this (freely improvised) idiom. Stevens and Watts seem comfortable within a framework that they are working to perfect, to rid of anything extraneous, to reach a hitherto unrealized purity of expression. Parker and Bailey, it seems, still want to expand the idiom outward, while Stevens and Watts seek to reduce it to its bare essentials. At least, the latter approach is the one that Trevor and John take here.
There is a flighty feel to their music, emphasized largely by the tone colors employed – Watts on soprano, and Stevens making extensive use of the cymbals. Also, Stevens is in no sense overpowering and seems especially aware of not cluttering things. He is much more of a percussionist than a drummer, reminding in certain respects of Sunny Murray’s approach with Albert Ayler. Like Murray, he has the ability to be subtle and to shift about various rhythmic directions, thus opening up a considerable amount of musical space. His style, however, is somewhat more “broken” than Murray’s, and his use of the cornet adds still another (rhythmic and tonal) dimension to his work. It is pitched in the same range as Trevor’s soprano and meshes nicely with it. Watts has a tone on his instrument that is at first remindful of Steve Lacy. His phrases, though, are like quick, jagged bursts of sound. They imply, but do not define. He and Stevens create a music that seems at once suspended in space and at the same time moving in all of space: like a painting with sound.
The Amalgam recording, by its own design, stands in bold contrast to Face to Face. Amalgam is Trevor Watts’ group and is the name under which he and John perform when pursuing the more conventional aspects of their music. Basically, this is just a good old-fashioned blowing session, built around simple riff-like figures and improvised in an up-to-date post-Ornette style. Watts twists and weaves on alto while Stevens keeps a crackling, explosive pulse. A nice tribute to drummers Blackwell and Higgins.
[Trevor Watts] Perhaps the most important aspect of this recording, however (aside from the music), is that it puts forth a simple but interesting idea about what contemporary musical expression ought to be. Most musicians, whether innovative or more conventional in their approach, find a style that suits them and then stay with it throughout their careers. Watts and Stevens’ LP suggests that one can be innovative and also work more directly within the tradition of the music. (Anthony Braxton’s recently released LP, In The Tradition, Steeplechase 1015, suggests a similar idea.) There is no reason, after all, why the rich legacy of improvised music must be left to be presented only by those who tastelessly commercialize and water it down, or who simply lack the technical facility that better musicians could bring to it.
So each of these LPs is of some significance and more so when placed alongside the other. Face To Face works to extend the improvisational language while Amalgam works with a language already well defined. Both recordings are recommended, with Face to Face perhaps obligatory listening.
Henry Kuntz, 1975
Trevor Watts biography:
Trevor Charles Watts (b. York, UK, February 26, 1939) is a jazz and free-improvising alto and soprano saxophonist. He is largely self-taught, having taken up the cornet at age 12 then switched to saxophone at 18. While stationed in Germany with the RAF (1958-63), he encountered the drummer John Stevens and trombonist Paul Rutherford. After being demobbed he returned to London. In 1965 he and Stevens formed the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, which became one of the crucibles of British free improvisation. Watts left the band to form his own group Amalgam in 1967, then returned to SME for another stretch that lasted till the mid-1970s. Another key association was with the bassist Barry Guy and his London Jazz Composers’ Orchestra, an association that lasted from the band’s inception in the 1970s up to its disbandment in the mid-1990s.
Though he was initially strongly identified with the avant-garde, Watts is a versatile musician who has worked in everything from straight jazz contexts to rock and blues. His own projects have come increasingly to focus on blending jazz and African music, notably the Moiré Music ensemble which he has led since 1982 in configurations ranging from large ensembles featuring multiple drummers to more intimate trios. He has only occasionally recorded in freer modes in recent years, notably the CD 6 Dialogues, a duet album with Veryan Weston (the pianist in earlier editions of Moiré Music). A solo album, World Sonic, appeared on Hi4Head Records in 2005.
selected Trevor Watts recordings:
more on Trevor Watts here…
John Stevens biography:
John William Stevens (June 10, 1940–September 13, 1994, in Ealing, West London) was a British drummer. He was one of the most significant figures in early free improvisation, and a founding member of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME).
Stevens was born in Brentford, the son of a tap dancer. He used to listen to jazz as a child, but was initially more interested in drawing and painting (mediums through which he expressed himself throughout his life). He studied at the Ealing College of Art and then started work in a design studio. He left at 19, however, to join the Royal Air Force. He studied the drums at the Royal Airforce School of Music in Uxbridge, and while there met Trevor Watts and Paul Rutherford, two musicians who became close collaborators. In the mid-1960s, Stevens began to play in London jazz groups alongside musicians like Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott, and in 1965 he fronted a septet. Influenced by the free jazz he was hearing coming out of the United States by players like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, his style began to move away from fairly traditional be-bop to something more experimental.
In 1966, SME was formed with Watts and Rutherford and the group moved into the Little Theatre Club in the centre of London to develop their new music. In 1967 their first album, Challenge, was released. Stevens then became interested in the music of Anton Webern, and the SME began to play generally very quiet music. Stevens also became interested in non-Western musics. The SME went on to make a large number of records with an ever changing line-up and an ever changing number of members, but Stevens was always there, at the centre of the group’s activity. He also played in a number of other groups, drumming in Watts’ group Amalgam and later forming bands like Freebop and Fast Colour, for example, but the SME remained at the centre of his activities.
In the latter part of 1967, Evan Parker joined the SME and worked closely with Stevens in the group, eventually becoming one of the longest standing members. He later summed up Stevens’ approach to improvising in two basic maxims: if you can’t hear another musician, then you’re too loud; and there is no point in group improvisation if what you are playing doesn’t relate to what other members of the group are playing. Stevens also devised a number of basic starting points for improvisation. These were not “compositions” as such, but rather a means of getting improvisational activity started, which could then go off in any direction. One of these was the so-called “Click Piece” which essentially asked for each player to repeatedly play a note as short as possible.
Stevens played alongside a large number of prominent free improvisors in the SME, including Derek Bailey, Peter Kowald and Julie Tippetts, but from the 1970s, the make-up of the SME began to settle down to a regular group of Stevens, Nigel Coombes playing violin, and Roger Smith playing guitar. From 1983, Stevens was involved with Community Music, an organisation through which he took his form of music making to youth clubs, mental health institutions and other unusual places. Notes taken during these sessions were later turned into a book for the Open University called Search and Reflect (1985).The SME continued to play, the last time being in 1994 with a group including John Butcher. Stevens died later that year.
selected John Stevens recordings: