directed by JOHN STEVENS
1 - PLUS EQUALS - 40:25
2 - SMO AT LTC - 20:21
1 originally issued in 1975 as A LP 003
All previously unissued
The St John's Smith Square concert was designed to present two aspects of John Stevens' music. The first half featured the John Stevens Dance Orchestra - a jazz-oriented medium-sized band. The second half (heard here) featured the more radical world of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and Orchestra.
For this performance, JOHN STEVENS selected 10 musicians (including himself, EVAN PARKER, TREVOR WATTS, IAN BRIGHTON, ROGER SMITH, NIGEL COOMBES, LINDSAY COOPER, JANE ROBERTSON, COLIN WOOD & MARCIO MATTOS) to be the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. All were musicians he had been working closely with in the recent past, except for Jane Robertson was visiting London at the time. (Note that Lindsay Cooper was the male string player, not to be confused with the female wind instrumentalist of the same name.) To turn this into the Spontaneous Music Orchestra, Stevens added 11 of his current workshop musicians (MARTIN MAYES, ROBERT CALVERT, BOB TURNER, DAVE DECOBAIN, HERMAN HAUGE, YE MIN, CHRIS TURNER, PETER DREW, ROBERT CARTER, STEPHEN LUSCOMB & ANGUS FRASER).
The music was designed to be performed by musicians of varying abilities. It commences with just the workshop musicians playing his piece Search & Reflect - a basic concept designed to make musicians listen to and react to each other. After about 5½ minutes, the other, more experienced musicians joined in playing long notes, and the piece evolved into a Sustained section. The music continues this way, with freer improvisations inserted, for the next 23 minutes (with Evan Parker playing some very high sustained notes towards the end of this section). Around 29 minutes from the start, Trevor Watts leads the music away from this semi-static state into a freely improvised final section.
Stevens himself was playing both cornet and percussion, whereas he only used cornet on the other performance contained on this CD. This goes back a year to the much smaller Little Theatre Club, where both the SME and SMO were performing regularly. Neither the personnel nor the premise of this piece are remembered, but it stands up to further listening regardless.
This recording follows a few months after the similar ones which were issued as MOUTHPIECE (Emanem 4039). There has been some somewhat wild speculation as to who was on that, since no detailed personnels were kept. To keep things in perspective, I should point out that besides John Stevens, the most famous musicians involved were Trevor Watts, Nigel Coombes and John Russell (who played electric guitar on some of the 1973 performances).
MARTIN DAVIDSON (2001)
"One of Stevens' most radically beautiful works has just been reissued. The 40-minute Plus Equals is an organised improvisation in three parts. The piece develops its own daunting beauty with subtly shifting long tones surmounting an underlying current of activity. Parker and Watts emerge as leaders - perhaps inevitably - but this is potent collective creation. The CD adds an unreleased 20-minute improvisation by a similar ensemble. It's a far looser performance, rough-hewn and propelled by strongly vocal reeds, voices, and sometimes prodding drums. It's a real find."
STUART BROOMER - CODA 2002
"The main piece is satisfactory in every regard and is wonderful to hear again. It begins in a soft mêlée of tight, high horn sounds with growling drones behind, a structured section in which individual players are required to Search & Reflect, listen and respond to the work of the players around them. This then develops into a Sustained passage of longer-held tones. Evan Parker is very prominent, but gradually Trevor Watts unfreezes the tableau and leads the music to a powerfully joyous climax. A remarkable work, and one of SME/SMO's finest documented moments."
RICHARD COOK and/or BRIAN MORTON - 'The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD' 2002
"The 40-minute piece included here evolves slowly, quietly. Constantly present is a flouring of sustained notes and noisy strings over which other instrumentalists develop textures or stir the group in a different direction. It gives the impression of a big, slow, alien live organism moving across a room to come to a halt. The ending is particularly impressive: delicate, gradual, feeling almost conducted. The extra track is an excerpt from a concert held a year before. More of a screaming, high-octane venture where individual personalities are given more room to stretch, it also ranks among the SMO's strong performances. PLUS EQUALS contains great, challenging large-scale free improvisation. Recommended."
FRANÇOIS COUTURE - ALL-MUSIC GUIDE 2001
"The 40-minute piece commences with quick flurries of broken phrases passed around the group. The music gradually coalesces around sustained orchestral drones that create a hovering backdrop for the quavering lines of Watts' and Parker's sopranos. There is an organic sense of breathlike dynamic fluctuation as the swirling, freely modulating harmonies well up and then open into more diffused interludes. As the improvisation progresses, sawing arco strings, the organ-like wheezings of harmonica, and the scrabbling jangle of Ian Brighton's electric guitar shimmer on the surface of the encompassing tapestry. Finally, Watts' cascading lines break in to lead the piece toward a vigorous free section that magically resolves into a quiet, collective conclusion."
MICHAEL ROSENSTEIN - SIGNAL TO NOISE 2001
"The 40-minute odyssey of the original recording is a superb example of process at work. It starts out focusing on the workshop players, who flit and dart in the style beloved by fans of European improvisation. It's vintage mid-70s stuff: a compelling listen and deserving attention in its own right. But what really makes this performance stand out is the large ensemble work that comes to form the piece. This long piece is a leviathan, a moving land mass of sound, always in flux but always maintaining a basic identity. Voices coalesce, then dissipate; sometimes the musicians join to create a massive drone, while elsewhere disparate sounds flit about like birds in flight above an island. While the undercurrent of sound is constant, the proceedings are never less than compelling - and the ending is lovely, a delicate decrescendo that suits the piece perfectly.
If the second track is less rewarding, it's not for lack of energy on the part of the musicians. It's more of a straight blowing piece, as it were, filled with much raucousness and abandon. The dynamics of the first piece are not always present. Still it's a worthy listen. All in all, this is a fine reissue."
JASON BLIVENS - CADENCE 2002
"In these group improvisations, one is reminded of Charles Ives, of all people. Musical ideas flow in several layers, with the orchestra forming into little groups of players working together. The fact that these never fall apart is impressive to say the least. The other thing which this writer, at least, found coming to mind was the later music of Albert Ayler, with its use of bowed strings pitched against reeds in a multi-rhythmic, poly-dimensional melange. The difference between these comparators and SMO, of course, is that the latter has no real interest in tunes. Although melodic fragments do emerge, they're not developed in any way. This is music concerned with density and texture, and as such it's highly effective.
This writer has often wondered whether free improvisation by large groups is really viable, and slowly is developing the opinion that it is, as long as you don't expect it to be like small-group improvisation. There detail and interplay between the musicians is paramount, and individual voices become the focus of close attention. Large-group improvisations, perhaps unsurprisingly, tend to be satisfying over larger time-periods. It takes longer for ideas to be developed when so many people are involved, and the ideas are invariably different in kind from those generated in small-scale environments."
RICHARD COCHRANE- MUSINGS - 2002
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