JOHN STEVENS percussion
EVAN PARKER soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone
PETER KOWALD double bass (on 6 & 7 only)
1 - LISTENING TOGETHER 1 - 4:41
2 - LISTENING TOGETHER 2 - 8:41
3 - LISTENING TOGETHER 3 - 4:44
4 - LISTENING TOGETHER 4 - 4:26
5 - LISTENING TOGETHER 5 - 7:18
6 - FIRST COUSINS - 14:38
7 - SECOND COUSINS - 11:15
8 - ECHO CHAMBER MUSIC 1 - 5:05
9 - ECHO CHAMBER MUSIC 2 - 3:04
10 - ECHO CHAMBER MUSIC 3 - 2:12
All previously unissued
LOOKING BACK. I interviewed EVAN PARKER in 1997 for the magazine Opprobrium, and asked him if he found playing with the SME restrictive at all.
I didn't feel particularly restrained. I felt a lot of what John was talking about, or the kind of method, such as there was one, was based on several quite simple rules: (1) if you can't hear somebody else you are playing too loud, and (2) if what you are doing does not, at regular intervals, make reference to what you are hearing other people do, you might as well not be playing in the group. I mean I've put it in my own language, but those were maybe the two most important lessons that John wanted people to learn when they played with SME. And so there was what you can call a compositional aesthetic which required musicians to work with those two kind of rules or ideals in mind.
A CONTEMPORANEOUS VIEW. The following review of an SME (John Stevens & Evan Parker) performance at the Little Theatre Club in London, was written by VICTOR SCHONFIELD in 1967 September. It was first published in the 1968 January 11 edition of Down Beat, and is reprinted with permission.
Stevens began presenting free improvisation sessions several nights a week at this club nearly two years ago. Since then, the club and the various editions of his Spontaneous Music Ensemble have been the focal points of the new freedom in Britain. The SME does not employ themes, frameworks for improvisations, regular tempos, or passages where a single player dominates, and melodies are of the a- or pan-tonal kind one would expect.
The current group was formed some months ago, and has been concerned with eliminating not just dominant individual contributions but individual parts as such. Each man plays responses to the other's work rather than his own and seems careful to avoid either imposing his own pattern on the music or using the other's playing as a background for a self-contained, self-expressing statement.
Both Stevens' and Parker's phrases are short and asymmetrical in themselves as well as by comparison with the phrases before and after, and although Stevens' rests are far briefer than Parker's, the two parts overlap in such a way that neither can be isolated and studied for long.
The surface of the SME's music is austere and varies little from moment to moment or piece to piece, the pieces being roughly 15 minutes of sound and silence, defined by longer silences, during which the musicians stop listening to each other. The noise-level rarely rises above moderate, and the textures of short-noted phrases are sparse and lucid.
Stevens has a marvellous facility for coining successive contrasting figures, each with its clear and lively speed, shape, and melodic colour. Currently, however, he intersperses these with less-defined equally spaced or eddying rolls, which do not move to a new part of the kit with each stroke, so that his work has calm, as well as nervous activity.
In addition to a fairly conventional grouping of drums and cymbals, his kit includes a stand to which are attached bongos, cowbells, and small cymbals in rows of four, and also a gong that, when given a slow tattoo, yields a sound in which three pitches are prominent at once.
Stevens often places his sounds in contexts that give them an explicit pitch, and his attention to detail (fine shadings of dynamics and timbre, different cycles of growth and decay, all from one basic sound) is exquisite.
Parker's style is unique, and I find it harder to describe than any other conception I have heard in the new music. His sound is flinty and rather staccato; variations of character between notes are restricted in range; his rhythms are fitful, and his melodies suggest a minor key. The outline of every phrase is both forbidding and similar to every other phrase, yet neither of these factors seems to be the key to his music.
The temptation is to say that his work is immature, or maybe a case of discontinuous improvising within preposterously narrow boundaries. The fact that inexperienced listeners hear every new player like this, plus the unmistakable purity and individuality of his work, makes me certain that any serious listener must persevere with Parker just the same.
Parker and Stevens seemed to break through to a deeper level of hearing, where a sound was not set against other sounds but rather against the silence around it, so that one gained heightened awareness of its growth and decay, its special colour, and of the vibrant stillness in which it took place. The outward sign of this was not silence itself, but very quiet sounds, sounds that were not cut off but allowed to decompose in their own way, in their own time, before being replaced.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTS by MARTIN DAVIDSON (1995-7).
Early in 1967, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) (1966-1994) was a septet comprised of Kenny Wheeler, Paul Rutherford, Trevor Watts, Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Barry Guy and John Stevens. They mainly used compositional frameworks and much instrumental doubling to make music with a large variety of colours, but had already moved a long way from the world of jazz in which they had started. On their recordings (issued in 1997 for the first time as WITHDRAWAL on Emanem 4020), Parker's presence is hardly noticed - he says he felt overawed in such company.
During the spring of that year, Stevens took over as sole leader, and instigated a change of direction towards a conversational type of free improvisation which put everyone on an equal footing. The emphasis was for each musician to listen to the contributions of the others rather than concentrate on their on their own playing - the antithesis of most of the then (and now) prevailing trends in music. This required Stevens to move from a conventional drum kit to a quieter collection of small drums and cymbals and other percussion - allowing other instruments to be able to converse on the same level.
Not all the other musicians immediately went along with this change of direction, and by the start of the summer the only full time members of the SME were Stevens and Parker, with Wheeler and/or Bailey added from time to time. In the autumn, Barre Phillips (on an extended stay in London) was often added, and in the winter, Dave Holland joined in, resulting in what was the second published SME recording - KARYOBIN (not currently available).
This disc contains the only known recordings of the duo of John Stevens (1940-1994) and Evan Parker (b. 1944) made during the nine months or so they were a trailblazing working duo. They subsequently made excellent duo records for Ogun in 1976 and 1993 - but that is another story. The first duo session here is superb in both contents and sound (albeit in mono). The second is a concert recording with ghastly echo, but the music manages to shine through.
The trio session with Peter Kowald (b. 1944), who was in London for a short vacation, was recorded at Les Cousins coffee bar. It also suffers somewhat, this time from an imperfect recording of the bass, and from a noisy audience. What were they talking about? Was it really more important than the music? Again, one has to live with these defects in order to hear the only known recordings of this significant meeting - the occasion being the first time the three played together.
"Over the course of a 30-year career the British drummer and ringleader John Stevens organised the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, a crucially influential band of improvisers including at various times Evan Parker, Kenny Wheeler, Derek Bailey, Dave Holland and Julie Tippett. SUMMER 1967 captures duo and trio performances with a very young Evan Parker, in the process of developing a totally new style of music. Fragile, tentative saxophone notes jostle with clattering, infinitely varied percussion details, as if seeking the glue which will connect the sounds into a logical flowing entity. These are modest, fascinating short studies in sound production, not the marathon jousts of later years, with unexpected twists of line along a narrow but fertile path of invention."
ART LANGE - PULSE! 1996
"The clarity and direction of the music are constantly apparent, and it already sounds nothing like the North American free jazz that was one of its main inspirations. It also sounds extraordinarily strange, oblique and very moving. The essential, intense relaxation was in place, and technique and language developed naturally from these roots - roots nearly all free-improvisers share, even if they've never heard these recordings."
STEVE BERESFORD - RESONANCE 1996
"As all three players have been associated with some ferocious music, it is the gentleness of the playing here that is most striking. Parker - by his own account intimidated by his rapid initiation into the SME and the blossoming European freejazz community - might be expected to echo the era's obvious influences - Coltrane, Rollins, Shepp, Ayler? - but already he sounds like no jazz saxophonist who came before. At the same time, this is originality by default; although he already sounds like Evan Parker, this is not yet the pioneer of extended techniques who was to set new standards for improvising reed players. Here, like the visiting Kowald, he subsumes his self-consciousness within a single-minded concentration on the music as a whole. Parker and Kowald were both 23 at the time of these recordings; Stevens at 27, was the most seasoned player, the organiser, the catalyst whose relentless energy was, if anything, somewhat tempered by live performance, and who off stage could always be relied on to be teaching, organising, producing; an energy that perhaps made him taken for granted critically, and eventually less well-known than many of the players he nurtured."
DAVID LEE - CODA 1996
"Evan Parker was still in his chrysalis state at this time, which is not to say that his playing is without interest. Quite the contrary. One can hear the embryonic versions of the moebius strip-like lines for which Parker would become famous. Here his lines and ideas are more fragmented but he obviously has a clear determined direction. It still seems like he's following Stevens' lead. In a way, one can almost hear him listening to Stevens. Parker's technique is solid and he had already mastered many of the extended techniques of his instruments but they had yet to gel into a personal style. Nonetheless, these recordings have some of the most appealing free saxophone work being done at the time.
But the real star of this set is the late, great John Stevens. I'm amazed at how unique and accomplished his approach was. Sure the influence of Sunny Murray's shattering glass was there, but whereas Murray's approach was primarily to accrue momentum, Stevens' lay more toward the establishment of dialogue. Stevens' crisp clear cymbal and snare work (especially on the well-recorded first five duets Listening Together 1-5) prods Parker into various responses which sets up a lively interchange, especially on those where Parker plays soprano sax.
On the two longest tracks, Parker and Stevens are joined by German bassist Peter Kowald. Although this is the first time these three played together, it's obvious they are kindred spirits. What's most interesting is that Kowald seems to be working more in tandem with Stevens than with Parker. Parker almost seems to be the odd man out, especially on First Cousins where he plays tenor. On Second Cousins, where he's playing soprano, it seems more like a trialogue with all three members on a more equal footing.
The last part of the program goes back to the duet format. The recording quality is not particularly good, with Stevens suffering from a muted sound (no crisp clear cymbal splashes here) and Parker sounding like he's phoning his part in from an abandoned water tank. But, curiously, this adds to the strange atmosphere of the duets. Here, a little more than a month later, Parker emerges as Stevens' equal. The playing is so synchronous it's almost as if they are breathing together.
Concentrating on this recording as a historical document may be somewhat misleading. There's no denying its importance in that respect. But SUMMER 1967 is, more importantly, great music, 30 years old and still worth hearing."
ROBERT IANNAPOLLO - OPPROBRIUM 1997
"Stevens pioneered the use of unorthodox kits - the early augmentations of bongos, tiny cymbals, and wood blocks heard on SUMMER 1967 were refined over the years around a snare and twin high hat core. Comprised of eight compact duets with Parker, and two expansive trios including bassist Peter Kowald, SUMMER 1967 finds the elements of Stevens' approach in place. His use of offsetting colours and textures never totally obscures his inveterate propulsiveness, and his intense outbursts are leavened with a light, low volume touch. Parker's work, especially on soprano, is at a fascinating prototypical stage. While the rhythmic and melodic aspects of his phraseology are gelling, there are only hints of his trademark buzzes and squalls; as a result, his solos seem tentative. SUMMER 1967 documents an important step in his artistic matriculation."
BILL SHOEMAKER - JAZZ TIMES 1997
" SUMMER 1967 is significent not just in documenting one of Evan Parkerīs earliest recordings; it also preserves his and Stevensīs first meeting with a player whom both were later to credit with opening up whole new areas of improvisational language to them. Kowald is a central figure in the European free movement, a generous, open-minded player who never for a moment stops listening to what is going on around him. This doesnīt happen in a confrontational-conversational way, but with a constant awareness of what is going on in what Stevens was later to describe, using an analogy from his other art form, as īperipheral visionī, an ability to pick up fleeting clues and render them as significant as the apparent focal point. That to a degree is what the SME has always been about, whatever its exact personnel and instrumentation."
RICHARD COOK & BRIAN MORTON - The Penguin Guide to JAZZ RECORDINGS 9th edition, 2008
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