JOHN STEVENS percussion, cornet or mini-trumpet, voice
NIGEL COOMBES violin
ROGER SMITH guitar, amplified guitar
COLIN WOOD cello (on 1 & 2)
1 - IMMEDIATE PAST FRAGMENT - 2:23
2 - THE ONLY GEEZER AN AMERICAN SOLDIER SHOT WAS ANTON WEBERN - 31:36
3 - LOW PROFILE - 23:44
4 - KITLESS WITH ELBOW - 11:26
1-2: Analogue concert recording, Derby (College of Further Education)
1977 NOVEMBER 17
3: Analogue concert recording by STEVE MOORE, London (The Cut)
1984 FEBRUARY 22
4: Digital concert recording by MICHAEL GERZON, London (Red Rose)
1988 OCTOBER 9
Total time 69:45
All previously unissued
For a period in 1975-6 the Spontaneous Music Ensemble comprised John Stevens, Trevor Watts and Roger Smith. When Watts left in 1976, Stevens made the somewhat surprising decision to add two more unamplified string players in his place. All three string players had performed with larger versions of the SME during the previous few years, so individually they were all prime possibilities. Not surprisingly, the resulting group was very unlike anything that had gone before - but then Stevens' moves were never predictable.
This quartet only stayed together for a short period, before Colin Wood relocated to India. The remaining trio of John Stevens, Nigel Coombes and Roger Smith then went on to become the version of the SME that lasted the longest period, whilst probably performing and recording the least.
When the release of the trio collection HOT AND COLD HEROES (Emanem 4008) was being prepared in 1996, Nigel Coombes remembered that he had some possibly relevant reel-to-reel tapes stashed away somewhere. Playing them, possibly for the first time since they were recorded, revealed a long-forgotten quartet SME concert at Derby.
Three sets, each lasting around half-an-hour, were performed and recorded at the concert (along with a substantial amount of chat). The recording of the first piece was marred considerably by a loose connection causing dropout and loud noises, so only a FRAGMENT has been used here. The magnificent second piece is included on this CD in its entirety. The third one never really got off the ground, sounding as though the musicians were just going through the motions.
All of the pieces were given titles by John Stevens immediately before they commenced, no doubt with a view of influencing certain aspects of the music. The title of the first piece was only partially recorded, and the title used here is based on what is on the tape. The second title did result in some direct quotes from WEBERN at the start of the piece, notably on snare drum and violin, but the subsequent direction and sheer length of the piece are very un-Webern.
Stevens also pre-announced the title of LOW PROFILE some seven years later at a trio gig. This performance is fairly typical for the group, except that Smith uses an amplifier for the first half.
No title was given to the final piece included here (minus its tentative start), but Stevens did announce immediately prior to the performance that (a) he had been advised not to perform as he needed to rest a troublesome elbow, and (b) that he had left his SME kit with someone who was not around to unlock it. He particularly wanted to perform - the occasion being a long benefit concert - so he therefore decided to play the gig on mini-trumpet. Towards the end of KITLESS WITH ELBOW he moved to someone else's full-size drum kit.
All in all, this CD complements HOT AND COLD HEROES by publishing some more remarkable examples of this amazing LOW PROFILE band.
MARTIN DAVIDSON (1999)
"This version of the SME fulfilled every expectation of improvised music. The quality of their listening was intense, their attention to detail was microscopic, their responses were endlessly varied and engaging, their instrumental skills were given over to the creation of an unfolding group relationship rather than a showcase of parallel virtuosity. All of which may explain why not a huge number of people liked them.
Me, I loved them. I miss the sight of this group, the singularity of their sound, the richness and unintentional comedy of their collective behaviour in front of an audience: John Stevens scattering clicks and rustles from his mini-drum kit like a demented dolphin, head thrown back to let out ghostly moans and ululations; Roger Smith apparently suffering a medically obscure cross ankled, splayed finger aphasia in the quest to pinpoint the smallest of notes concealed on his already quiet instrument; Nigel Coombes ploughing through trace memories of Paganini, larks ascending, Psycho and Chic, still wearing velvet in the fallout days of punk; Colin Wood Apollonian and upright as a hat stand, seemingly perched above the nervous ferocity of this near inaudible scrapping and scraping yet deep within it.
There is a moment, 16 minutes into the very long The Only Geezer an American Soldier Shot was Anton Webern, when Stevens drops a fantastic cornet bleat into the insectivorous scurrying. Like a platoon of industrious midges paralysed by the incoming fart of a predatory superbug, the others throw a wall of silence in self-defense. The recovery is beautiful to hear, the process of improvisation laid bare, as in a painting of medical students surveying a corpse. Less than ten minutes later in the same piece, Stevens does it again, this time unleashing his famous West London Buddhist chant. Again, Coombes, Wood and Smith play musical statues. It takes them a little while to make the decision but when they clam up, they do so as one, momentarily abandoning Stevens, the implausible Tibetan monk, to a harsh spotlight of their spontaneous construction.
Lasting for only a few years before Wood disappeared to India, this was a group that relished such glorious incidents of embarrassment and hiatus. The mutual incomprehension tended to be address with a hurricane of hilarity and beer in the pub afterwards. In his workshops and groups, Stevens always passed on a vital lesson by example - be serious without being po-faced - and this created a robust context for music that was delicate yet far from fragile.
Listening to the quartet I hear a music of implication. Individual events are too fleeting, to fugitive to be fully absorbed. This was music that refused to hang about or to make the obvious moves, a febrile cluster of flurries, stop motion rhythms, blunted and truncated snaps, drones that lost the will to drone, pitches too brittle or transient to accommodate melody, larks that promised ascent then dropped dead out of the sky.
The trio was slightly different: more a three dimensional geometry of fluid colour lines, points of light and odd surface protuberances. Kitless with Elbow highlights the difference between the three players. Playing mini-trumpet, Stevens brings some of his love for free jazz into a group that was essentially chamber. This was reckless music that somehow expressed sensitivity through insensitivity and if Stevens wanted to blast it, then the others weren't about to damp his ardour.
So, if this music was so outrageously good, why did audiences prefer tosh of inferior virtue? LOW PROFILE is only the second release for this SME quartet, the first being BIOSYSTEM, released on Incus in 1977 and sounding even better now than it did then. They should have been filmed. More of their gigs should have been recorded. On the other hand, perhaps there's just about enough. To listen closely to their music can be exhausting like tuning in to the central nervous system of an ant colony; like hydrotherapy with tintacks. No rest, no comfort, no soft fluffy bottom. Just search and reflect, as John would say. How sad that he's no longer here."
DAVID TOOP - THE WIRE 1999
"The music is intense, in spite of the instrumentation. At the centre of the occasionally sedate string music is the miniature tornado of Stevens' percussion needling, spurring on, shaping the music at every point. Coombes' sound is edgy and abrasive, as if he entertains a deep suspicion of the past and prefers to hear the instrument afresh. The second tack opens in fragmentary, Webernesque manner in keeping with the title, which refers to Webern. The early days of free music by the SME showed his influence - the ability to make so much turn aphoristically on a single sound - so the reference seems appropriate. The music broadens out from this delicate beginning with Stevens playing a sometimes desperately shrill-sounding cornet, but even this fits into the string-sound of the other players. At times he produces a low, keening sound which is like a bizarre minimalist requiem. The title track is 23 minutes of sustained creativity, ceaselessly changing, with the players sometimes pulling against one another and sometimes merging into s single homogenous sound. Maybe, it's just because they played so rarely, that the music is so rewardingly nerve-wracking, so on the edge."
RICHARD LEIGH - RESONANCE 2000
"The Only Geezer an American Soldier Shot was Anton Webern is as extraordinary as its title. It begins in Webernian fashion with lyrical fractals of sound but this minimalist aesthetic soon unfolds into a dazzling example of freely improvised collective swing with Stevens sounding like he's dancing with his drum sticks. After evolving this dance through sustained drone arco passages and a dialogue with Smith's fluently inventive guitar, there is a spacier interlude featuring passages of pizzicato and arco strings before Stevens re-enters on cornet, balancing flurries of high register yelps with sustained low drone tones. He follows his cornet performance with sustained vocal drone passages before resuming his dance at the drum kit. Low Profile develops a spacier trio dialogue into dynamic variations as Coombes grows more animated and vibrant on the violin. The trio's collective energy builds to a manic level before a brief drum interlude leads to pizzicato passages from Coombes. Smith shows his ability to match the rhythmic inventions of the drummer as he blends amplified shards into passages of banjo-style strumming and harmonic filigree. Kitless with Elbow demonstrates how Stevens has incorporated the sustained drone tones of his cornet into the texture of this ensemble's music, with a more organic purpose than his role eleven years earlier. As a document of the evolving rapport and energetic lyricism of this version of the SME, LOW PROFILE is essential."
DAVID LEWIS - CADENCE 1999
"The Spontaneous Music Ensemble consisted of a shifting cast of characters centered around the late lamented percussionist John Stevens; here he's joined by violinist Nigel Coombes, cellist Colin Wood (on two tracks), and guitarist Roger Smith . Thus all of these tracks are interplays of strings of various textures with percussion. Most of this is quiet music, with sudden convergences and divergences, and little thematic continuity. Yet at the same time there is an inescapable cumulative effect and a range of minute, intricate moments of subtle drama.
The center of the disc is the thirty-one minute The Only Geezer an American Soldier Shot Was Anton Webern, which is played by the quartet of Stevens, Coombes, Smith and Wood. Here the string players range through classical effects, percussive motifs, Ornetteian sturm und drang, and much more, while Stevens deftly shades their broods and wails with skitters and tweaks of percussion. There is a great deal to this piece worth savoring.
For the twenty-three minute Low Profile, the crisp and often bell-like sound of Smith's guitar tends to anchor and root the music at a somewhat more earthy level. And the combinations of the violin and guitar are often extraordinarily lush and inviting, as each in turn plays a percussive or droning role while the other takes center stage - or their solos simply intertwine.
A fascinating disc."
ROBERT SPENCER - ALL ABOUT JAZZ 1999
"The two quartet recordings are both taken from a November 1977 gig, and though the SME remit stipulated ego-less interaction, Stevens, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes across as the group's real centre. His busy, bustling and at times demonstrative percussion pokes at Coombes and Wood, provoking them into faux-classical flourishes, sharp slivers of sound, and baroque plucking, preventing them from ever locking together too tightly; Smith (though he suffers a bit in the mix) adds miniature, almost microtonal stabs, melodic darts and hacking splutters. Stevens becomes more dramatic as the concert wears on, and as soon as he picks up his cornet, the mood quite radically alters. He leads the group into more theatrical territory, and when he starts singing in a moaning 'ohm' style, the string players have to fight not to be overshadowed. The two trio recordings, the first from a February 1984 gig and the second from an October 1988 gig, see Stevens gradually exerting his musical personality in similarly cogent fashion. Smith is more audible, and he and Coombes stand their ground against Stevens' antics, as the improvisations gradually splinter into spikily fractious standoffs. These are articulate and often confrontational pieces, in natures more heated debate than all-out argument, but pretty fiery considering the under-playing by which their idiom is often characterised. Fascinating stuff, and another fine archival document of this seminal English improv institution."
NICK CAIN - OPPROBRIUM 2001
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