JOHN STEVENS QUARTET

NEW COOL

EMANEM 4117

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BYRON WALLEN trumpet & flugelhorn
ED JONES soprano & tenor saxophones
GARY CROSBY double bass
JOHN STEVENS drum set
 

1 - DUDUíS GONE - 12:13
2 - DO BE UP - 14:41
3 - YOUíRE LIFE - 21:20
4 - 2 FREE 1 - 17:54
5 - DUDUíS GONE - 9:19

Concert recording at the Crawley Jazz Festival - 1992 August 5
Total time 78:04

2 - 5 originally issued in 1994 as The Jazz Label TJL 006 CD
1 previously unissued

 

Excerpts from sleeve notes:

Nigel Coombes, a former member of John Stevens' Spontaneous Music Ensemble, was fond of a story of the dance band led by Chick Webb. They were said to have such quiet intensity that the sounds of the dancers' feet could be clearly heard above the music.

Byron Wallen's solo entry in DO BE UP is a perfect example of the intimate power of the Stevens quartet. That was around the time I walked into the tent at Crawley - there was an expectant, listening hush in the audience you rarely find at such an event.

The music was not exactly strange, but it had things in it that we hadn't heard before. It was not at all tense, but it gripped like an RKO thriller.

Like Chick Webb, John Stevens is a drummer/bandleader. He was in the first wave of Europeans who developed their own free-improvised music. But, in addition to that, his understanding of the music they call 'jazz' seems to me to go much deeper than those performers Lester Bowie says 'tinker with the music of twenty-five years ago'.

Remarkably, Stevens has figured out how to define a specific area of activity, a tone of voice for an entire group if you will, which can be explored at length and to great effect. To me, that's an extension of the auteurism of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington. Crosby, Jones and Wallen are all young but experienced leaders in their own right.

What John calls 'rhythmelodics' - a quality he hears in the music of Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins and Chet Baker - can bring out hidden qualities in an individual's playing. 'Rhythmelodic players are ones who get closest to a speech-like approach as opposed to an arpeggio type of playing. Any rhythm has an innate melodic content.' And vice versa.

Listen to Gary Crosby's repeated figure under Byron in that section of DO BE UP - singable, danceable bass lines you thought had been lost with Wilbur Ware.

Rhythmelodics can involve musicians dedicated to playing within the tradition but put them in places they have never been before. And do that without sacrificing grace or flow. That's a rare thing to do, especially in Great Britain, in a culture that insistently devalues spontaneity and innovation.

DO BE UP has, John says, something to do with 'the UP feeling that comes through Ornette's music in pieces like Rambliní'. He's also listened carefully to Paul Bley's filtering of Coleman's music - John regards Bley as 'one of the few piano players to relate to that rhythmelodic place'.

The arrangement of YOU'RE LIFE is also modelled on a piece from the '60's - in this case John Coltrane's Lonnie's Lament. YOU'RE LIFE has had at least three sets of lyrics attached, including one dedicated to the late South African bassist Johnny Dyani.

2 FREE 1 concerns rhythm ('about freeing the relationship with the ONE in the music') and people imprisoned, and the spaciousness of the sky and quality of light in Norway. That's a whole lot of things for a composition to be about, but I think it can cope. Ed Jones sounds positively liberated, flying over the rhythmic ambiguities in the piece.

The tune DUDU'S GONE is, of course, about another departed South African musician - saxophonist Dudu Pukwana. John played with him often - they made a beautiful duo album together - and the loss of Dudu still clearly affects him.

Alfred Hitchcock talked of that progression from the general to the specific. What holds this music in suspension is the almost obsessive attention to the minutiae of improvisation coupled with a wide historic and social understanding. Between the mechanics of counting and the rhythms of the human body, between Ornette and Chet, Stevens has cleared a space for this courageous and poetic music.

STEVE BERESFORD (1993)

This reissue contains all of the Quartet's festival set in the order it occurred. The applause and John's announcements have been retained in addition to all of the music. The opening version of DUDU'S GONE was omitted from the original issue probably because the recording engineer was still adjusting levels. I have attempted to cancel out these changes, so that this excellent performance can also be enjoyed.

MARTIN DAVIDSON (2005)

 

Excerpts from reviews:

"Stevens played plenty of free improv, but this 1992 set from the Crawley jazz festival finds him in a more straight-ahead mood, with a young Ed Jones on tenor, a fledgling Byron Wallen on trumpet and Gary Crosby on bass. Stevens' delightful ride-cymbal sound and springy offbeats, and his affection for playfully freeboppish Ornette Coleman-like themes, are all in evidence across five long originals. Wallen sounds very assured and freely inventive, full of ambitious leaps that mostly land on solid ground. and Jones is already the bold and hard-edged post-Coltraneist who would attain international stature with the band Us3. Of the album tracks, Do Be Up is a laconic fragmented blues, You're Life has Albert Ayler associations, 2 Free 1 grows organically in free-ensemble exchanges, and Dudu's Gone is freebop with some sly harmonic rule breaking and fine solos."

JOHN FORDHAM - THE GUARDIAN 2005

"As usual with Stevens there's a strong sense of his role as mentor here, leading a young, hot band through a masterclass in Getting Inside The Jazz Tradition While Keeping It Alive: dedications to Dudu Pukwana and Johnny Dyani, pieces referencing Ornette and Trane, and the rhythmically slippery 2 Free 1, a piece designed to free up 'the relation with the ONE in the music'. Stevens' drumming is marked by his love of Blackwell, Higgins and Elvin, but is unmistakable for anyone else's; it's springy, relaxed, flowing from his exemplary cymbal work, attentive to nuances of sound and melody, never kicking the soloists along bluntly but nonetheless excitable and responsive. This disc is cracking good music that deserves the widest circulation, especially in this new edition featuring an extra take of Dudu's Gone: the pure, visceral joy of Jones and Stevens' exchanges on that track matches anything on the original album."

NATE DORWARD - PARISTRANSATLANTIC 2005

"Though Emanem has long been synonymous with state-of-the-art English free improv, Martin Davidson also annexes catalogue space for the occasional free jazz project. These entries may constitute a minority, but as this recent John Stevens reissue assays, their quality is often on excellent. Stevens was a consummate ambassador to both camps and was especially adept at blurring, sometimes even erasing, the boundaries between the two.

Describing Stevens's skills and influence as a drummer and improviser, the temptation often exists to employ that trite journalistic device of comparing him to other influential bandleaders. There's his Blakey-like aptitude for discovering and nurturing talented younger players, a skill on substantial display here through a quartet rounded out by then twenty-somethings Byron Wallen, Ed Jones, and Gary Crosby. Stevens treats them as peers and the disc's five tracks encompass ample space for discursive solos.

Oddly enough, or perhaps not, Stevens' playing suggests the spirit, if not the letter, of Shelly Manne: lithe and effervescent rather than punishingly fast or loud, and possessing a similarly orchestral sense of percussive colour. His sticks skip across the skins, never prodding or shoving, but instead coaxing malleable rhythms for his colleagues to ride. His supple brushwork shaping textured rolls on Do Be Up and 2 Free 1 is just as responsive and nuanced.

Jones shares Coltrane's reed choices and his improvisations evince a comparable note pregnant style, phrases spouting from his ceiling-angled saxophone bell in a bobbing phraseology that also recalls Rollins. Byron Wallen's brass personifies the intimations of the album's title, particularly when he opts for flugelhorn. His improvisations exude a breezy nonchalance and tone largely devoid of smear or slur that made me mindful of Kenny Wheeler. Lastly, there's the proactive Crosby who receives the favourable comparison to Wilbur Ware in Steve Beresford's original liner notes. Wielding a roly-poly articulation and adaptable harmonic acumen, he not only plugs the cracks, but also propels the band right alongside Stevens' signaling cymbal flares, particularly so on the disc's centerpiece You're Life.

As mentioned track lengths are uniformly long and the Emanem standard of maxing the capacity of the compact disc medium is maintained. The loose, relaxed mood of a band in their element plying the solace of melodic improv to receptive audience sustains for the duration. Reveling in the music of this disc it's hard not to miss Stevens' elder statesman presence on the British scene all the more."

DEREK TAYLOR - BAGATELLEN 2005

"Steve Beresford's liners to the original issue compare Stevens to 1930s drummer and big band leader Chick Webb, a point of reference as accurate as it is insightful. Webb continually demonstrated an impeccable sense of tempo and rhythmic placement, and Stevens follows suit on NEW COOL's opening track, a previously unreleased version of Dudu's Gone that actually opened the set. It is fascinating to hear one of the pillars of free improvisation swing, which he does with taste and energy throughout the disc. Do Be Up, to site only one example, drives fairly hard, the hard-bopish head vying for prominence with the strangely craggy call-and-response atomism of the instrumental interplay.

Yet, it wouldn't be a Stevens gig without some of his spontaneous timbral invention, the beautiful brushwork on the opening of 2 Free 1 and the bristlingly transparent bass-and-drums explorations of Your Life being so familiar but always welcome. Wallen and Jones are superb foils for Stevens and Crosby, Wallen coming from a more stereotypically bebop perspective - cool, sweet but firm like late 1940s Miles - and Jones often down in the gutbucket, his playing shot through with blues and soul.

This is a gig that gathers momentum as it goes, and by the closing version of Dudu the band is red-hot. Obviously dedicated to the late South-African saxophonist, the head encapsulates all the folkish fun of a Brotherhood of Breath or Bluenotes track. Now that the rhythmic complexities of 2 Free 1 have been surmounted and the players put through their paces, the group rips into it with gusto and vengeance, Stevens punctuating every phrase with bombs, flams and the occasional vocal exclamation. The coda shows Wallen and Jones at their collective best, Wallen fluttering effortlessly around Jones' earthy scronk. The juxtaposition is remarkably effective, rounding off another important and immensely satisfying reissue."

MARC MEDWIN - DUSTED MAGAZINE 2005

"Do Be Up is a track that pretty much sums up the musical mindset of Stevens' band. I mean, why would you bother doing it if your life didn't depend on it? If you didn't love peeling back the moment and squeezing out the very marrow of existence? This music is clearly made with joy, and that's what it clearly expresses, too. Check the sleeve photo of Stevens' gleeful grin (or is it a jazzman's so-sweet-it-hurts grimace?) as he eggs the lads on. The Freebop that they play looks simultaneously backwards and forwards, so there's something here for jazz aficionados who sit on either side of the modernist fence. Byron Wallen and Ed Jones dive in head first with energetic gusto and positively blaze with great warmth and joy throughout the eighty minute set. Gary Crosby's bass lines trawl the halls of the old masters and remind you that jazz used to be music you could dance to. Stevens seems to lap it all up and spit it back out at us eager listeners, with a diamond geezer's rough'n'ready sparring that starts with a shove and ends with a lung-busting bear hug. NEW COOL is great music made by a great band for us to enjoy over and over again."

MATT KRIEG - AUSTRALIA 2005

"In the right hands, jazz can transform its essential nature in a form of unrelenting daydreaming, therefore avoiding the risk of losing its immaculateness under the laws of that pillular rootedness which often standardizes the playing, handpicking blueprints from the tree of boredom. When John Stevens' group refreshes intentions that too often are handcuffed by sterile codes, their well addressed energy becomes the most attractive feature of the whole acoustic flow; the interaction between Byron Wallen (trumpet, flugelhorn), Ed Jones (soprano and tenor sax) and the finely honed yet flamingly hearty rhythmic terminology of Stevens and bassist Gary Crosby is akin to a brilliant conversation among four masters. The leader's hurdling drumming is still criminally undersung, as John's inventiveness on his set rejoins his passionate hunt for new rules to be subverted - but never forgetting his erudite approach."

MASSIMO RICCI - TOUCHING EXTREMES 2005

"There is an exhilarating, raw quality to the music, which receives its inspiration from sources as diverse as Ornette Coleman and Dudu Pukwana. On both versions of Dudu's Gone and on Do Be Up, the two horns, trumpeter / flugelhornist Byron Wallen and soprano / tenor saxophonist Ed Jones, portray the sort of open, slightly ragged performances by which Coleman electrified the jazz world in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Although by the time of this recording, the radical, even controversial nature of the genre was hardly suspect, these first two piano-less cuts help recall how exciting this kind of sound could be, with its unbounded enthusiasm, and long, searing horn solos sandwiched between catchy heads. While You're Life takes a step further out, and 2 Free 1 showcases a lengthy lyrical solo by Ed Jones on soprano sax, with the drums and acoustic bass egging him on, there is surprisingly little here that is not reasonably accessible, in keeping with the vision of Stevens in presenting a 'peoples' sound', one that almost always contains an essential melodicism, though without compromising its integrity. Gary Crosby performs with a particularly confident ťlan on the second take of Dudu's Gone, where he offers a fine solo with a strong, powerful, if relatively conventional, technique. While there are some lapses in the overall group sound, especially in intonation and in a sense that the tracks, in an ideal world, might have been shorter, this recording should be welcomed as an important find for its significance as an excellent example of Steven's later work, and its sheer musicality. Upon its reissue, it held up well more than a decade after its initial performance, projecting the timeless qualities that provide a portal for more radical explorations and many pleasures in its own right."

STEVEN LOEWY - ALL MUSIC GUIDE 2006

"To the end of his life, Stevens continued to bring forward gifted young players. The SME evolved constantly, as its specific ethos demanded, but so too did Stevens's other groups, and New Cool, recorded at Crawley Jazz festival, is an excellent example of how seriously he took his mission to lead younger musicians at an accelerated pace through some of the major epiphanies of his own career. Of the four tracks, two are reworkings of Ornette and John Coltrane material, Ramblin' and Lonnie's Lament respectively. The listener doesn't need to be aware of this to enjoy or appreciate this music, which is immensely accessible, but it adds a significant dimension once the connection becomes obviouis. As always, Stevens is thinking of old friends as well, in this case two South Africans, Johnny Mbizo Dyani and Dudu Pukwana, whose own early deaths he was to echo all too soon after."

RICHARD COOK & BRIAN MORTON - The Penguin Guide to JAZZ RECORDINGS, 9th edition 2008

 

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