spontaneous music ensemble | the source – from and towards | “so what do you think ?”

from and towards – side 1

Tangent 107

John Stevens / drums, Trevor Watts / alto and soprano saxophones, Ray Warleigh / alto saxophone, flute, Brian Smith / tenor and soprano saxophones, Ken Wheeler / trumpet, flugelhorn, Bob Norden / trombone, Mike Payne / piano, Ron Mathewson / bass, Marcio Mattos / bass. Recorded: November 18, 1970.



Tangent 118

John Stevens / drums, Trevor Watts / soprano saxophone, Ken Wheeler / trumpet, flugelhorn, Derek Bailey / guitar, Dave Holland / bass.
Recorded: January 27, 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.

Henry Kuntz, 1975


The Spontaneous Music Ensemble

The Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) was a loose collection of free improvising musicians convened beginning in the mid-1960s by the late South London-based jazz drummer/trumpeter John Stevens and alto and soprano saxophonist Trevor Watts.

SME performances could range from Stevens-Watts duos to gatherings of more than a dozen players. One can loosely divide the group’s history into two periods: the more horn-oriented earlier ensembles (typically with some combination of Watts, Evan Parker and Kenny Wheeler), and the later string-based ensembles with guitarist Roger Smith (who became as central to the second edition of SME as Watts was to the first) and violinist Nigel Coombes. (The transitional point is the quartet album Biosystem (Incus, 1977), which also featured cellist Colin Wood.) Countless other musicians passed through the SME over the years, including Derek Bailey, Paul Rutherford, Maggie Nichols, Dave Holland, Barry Guy, Peter Kowald and Kent Carter. The final edition of the group was a trio of Stevens, Smith, and the saxophonist John Butcher, a configuration documented on A New Distance (1994).

Inspired both by American free jazz and by the radical, abstract music of AMM, as well as influences as diverse as Anton Webern and Samuel Beckett (two Stevens touchstones), the SME kept at least a measure of jazz in their sound, though this became less audible in the later “string” ensembles. As critic Brian Olewnick writes, the SME emphasised an “extremely open, leaderless aspect where a premium was placed on careful and considered listening on the part of the musicians. Saxophonist Evan Parker observed that Stevens had two basic rules: (1) If you can’t hear another musician, you’re playing too loud, and (2) if the music you’re producing doesn’t regularly relate to what you’re hearing others create, why be in the group? This led to the development of what would jocularly become known as ‘insect improv’ — music that tended to be very quiet, very intense, arrhythmic, and by and large atonal.”

Stevens’ death in 1994 brought an end to the SME.


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