JOHN STEVENS percussion
NORMA WINSTONE voice
KENNY WHEELER flugelhorn
PAUL RUTHERFORD trombone
TREVOR WATTS bass clarinet
1 - FAMILIE SEQUENCE - 32:30
JOHN STEVENS percussion, voice
JULIE TIPPETT voice, guitar
TREVOR WATTS soprano saxophone
RON HERMAN double bass
2 - QUARTET SEQUENCE 29:30
JOHN STEVENS percussion
TREVOR WATTS soprano saxophone
3 - FLOWER 9:18
All previously unissued
John Stevens was never satisfied. After coming up with a unique, viable and highly influential method of group improvisation in the middle of 1967 (usually referred to as 'SME Music'), he decided to introduce other elements, most notably the Click Piece and the Sustained Piece which became the most extreme of his pieces designed to help people into group improvising. These, and other such concepts, began to be used in the music of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME), as can be heard on this CD.
Another change occurring early in 1968 was that Trevor Watts rejoined the SME, after a year away from the group. He then stayed until 1976, but has always maintained that it wasn’t really his sort of music, as can be ascertained by his more overtly rhythmic and lyrical work before and after, as well as in his free jazz group Amalgam which co-existed with this SME period. However, it must be said that his work with the SME is superb – but then, he is a superlative (and much underrated) musician.
This CD contains three previously unissued performances that all feature Stevens’ frameworks leading to group improvising. FAMILIE SEQUENCE from mid-1968 features a unusual instrumentation with three wind instruments, voice and percussion. (An earlier, unissued studio recording of FAMILIE has the very different instrumentation of two voices, piccolo, flute, soprano sax, piano, guitar, cello, two double basses and percussion.) The group texture is made even more unusual by Watts playing bass clarinet.
The first nine minutes comprise the loose theme which was heavily inspired by Gagaku (Japanese court music). This leads to a group improvisation which is interrupted at one point by a short section in which everyone plays glissandi together. Then come short Sustained and Click Pieces which in turn lead to another free improvisation which is capped off by looser versions of Sustained and Click. The overall sequence is unlike any other on record, although there are sections similar to other SME performances.
By the start of 1969, the SME had evolved to the line-up of Stevens, Watts, Johnny Dyani and Maggie Nicols with Wheeler added at times. This was followed by an unrecorded quartet with Mongezi Feza instead of Nicols and Wheeler. 1970 saw the inclusion of several more jazz-aligned musicians into the SME, then for several months in 1971 there was the quartet of Stevens, Watts, Julie Tippett and Ron Herman, which some listeners regard as their favourite SME line-up. (This band has a special place for me, since one of their concerts turned me on to the world of free improvisation.)
The QUARTET SEQUENCE heard here is somewhat similar to their masterpiece BIRDS OF A FEATHER which was recorded a few months later. One aspect of this quartet’s music was the reintroduction of free jazz elements into the SME group improvising. Thus the opening section is influenced by the trio of Albert Ayler, Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray – one of the major influences on the SME group music. The second section is more like SME group music, though it does contain repetitive elements. The third section is like a very emotional Ayler ballad. This is followed by a Click Piece and a Sustained Piece.
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this quartet is the amazing interplay between saxophone and voice. Prior to this, Julie Tippett had been a successful pop singer (using her maiden name), but had become disillusioned with that world, and had decided to find something else that was more spiritually satisfying to her. Ron Herman was one of numerous young musicians discovered and encouraged by John Stevens. He played with the SME for a few years, but died at a tragically young age. Stevens can be heard using a glockenspiel in addition to his evolving small drums and cymbals kit that is heard throughout this CD.
For the next couple of years, the SME was basically just Stevens and Watts, with other people added on an ad hoc basis. During most of 1972 and 1973, the duo SME performances were very austere, concentrating on performances of the hyper-minimalist piece FLOWER, which is superficially similar to the Click Piece. Most of Stevens' pieces were designed to open up into freedom - after over six minutes of apparently mechanical playing, the version heard here changes into some emotionally charged free improvisation. This encapsulates the way they came out of their austere period late in 1973, culminating in the magnificent performances collected on FACE TO FACE (Emanem 4003).
MARTIN DAVIDSON (2006)
"The history of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble is still full of undocumented line-ups, revelations big and small, and other surprises. Case in point: FRAMEWORKS, a wonderful collection of previously unavailable recordings. The three pieces included feature three different line-ups, all improvising collectively from John Stevens's frameworks - roughly-sketched sequences of events or directives aimed at developing group improvisation.
The first line-up is documented here for the first time: Stevens (percussion), Trevor Watts (on bass clarinet instead of his trusty soprano sax), Kenny Wheeler (flugelhorn), Paul Rutherford (trombone), and jazz singer Norma Winstone. Their Familie Sequence is a riveting slow-churning performance opening on a gagaku-like tutti. Sound quality is surprisingly good for such an old unissued document. The second line-up was previously known, although only from a very badly pressed LP: Stevens, Watts, bassist Ron Herman, and singer Julie Tippett (also playing an acoustic guitar). Their 30-minute Quartet Sequence is simply mesmerising and stands as one of the SME's best performances by any line-up, period. The sonic similarities between Tippett's voice and Watts's soprano sax are eerie, sending chills down your spine every time they happen to lock on the same note. Their dialogue steals the show, though Stevens and Herman never quite fall back into a typical rhythm section role. The shorter Flower features the well-documented duo of Stevens and Watts, in a performance announcing the heights of their FACE TO FACE CD. However, after the two longer, denser, and voice-led pieces preceding it, Flower can't help sounding like a footnote. That being said, it is no waste of time either.
FRAMEWORKS is not very significant on a historical basis, but musically speaking, it ranks among the strongest SME collections, way up there alongside QUINTESSENCE. Quartet Sequence is alone worth the price of admission and has moved this reviewer to tears, more than once."
FRANÇOIS COUTURE - ALL-MUSIC GUIDE 2007
"The first two tracks are from the (relatively undocumented) period in the late '60s and early 70s, when vocals were an important component of SME. They feature some of the most beautiful music released by SME.
The opener, Familie Sequence, employs a line-up that, including vocalist Norma Winstone, has not been previously heard on disc. With three wind instruments in addition to vocals, the line-up is perfect to employ two of Stevens' frameworks - the sustained piece (where each musician holds notes for as long as comfortable) and the click piece (where each note must be as short as possible.) After an introductory theme apparently influenced by Japanese court music, Familie Sequence includes several of each framework plus freely improvised sections. This provides a structure that is more formal than usual for SME. Winstone and Kenny Wheeler are just as much jazz musicians as free improvisers, while Paul Rutherford is mainly an improviser. The structure facilitates group playing that makes such distinctions irrelevant.
Julie Tippetts was a member of SME for much of 1971, recording the out-of-print BIRDS OF A FEATHER and 1. 2. ALBERT AYLER with this line-up. Quartet Sequence is a stunning track, characterized by interplay between all four players. Across its thirty minutes, there is great variety - from a highly complex but powerful rhythmic section through a sparse, mournfully atmospheric section in which Stevens plays glockenspiel and gong, to a closing click piece.
Shortly after Tippetts left, SME became the duo of Stevens and Watts. Their track here, Flower, opens with some formal exchanges that are tightly controlled by another of Stevens' frameworks. The result consists of intermittent notes, immediately echoed by the other player, in an effect similar to a click piece. Slowly the music becomes less restrained and towards the end there are some freer exchanges. However, the overall feeling is of players inhibited by the framework rather than liberated by it. Fascinating listening, though, and also a signpost to places that improvised music has revisited in recent years."
JOHN EYLES - ALL ABOUT JAZZ 2007
"The importance of SME in the history of modern music should never be underappreciated, and Emanem's ongoing effort to retrieve these archival gems from obscurity is, purely and simply, a cultural enhancement for everyone.
Familie sequence starts with long notes accompanied by soft rolling-and-tumbling, to evolve in a fully fledged creature whose parts are totally interrelated and functional in the context of a surprisingly mature, austere kind of 'free form minimalism'. The first section's modal aroma introduces to the core essence of the piece, in which straightforward lines by Winstone and Wheeler mingle with Rutherford's meticulous exploration of the trombone's nuances, Watts and Stevens acting as neighbouring contrasting forces which drive the whole to a pre-cathartic state. This is interrupted by staccatos and glissandos that seem to divide the participants into different groups to finally reunite them in a collective implosion that still allows the instruments (voice included) to librate in the air in a last attempt of fading out of sight.
Quartet sequence sees Stevens and Watts at work with Julie Tippett and the late Ron Herman. While I've never been a huge fan of Tippett's vocal style, her performance here - devoid of any useless embellishment and complication - is almost perfect, her voice dialoguing with Watts' soprano in several memorable exchanges over a complex intertwining of double bass and drums, a noteworthy contrapuntal research that yields large amounts of lyrical value and almost shamanic reiteration, not to mention some exquisite acoustic guitar playing. But the best has yet to come, in the shape of a deeply spiritual moment of communion between the parts, a siren chant-like segment in which the instrumental voices literally mourn their existence through our very soul in the most intense part of the entire album. The track ends with a 'click' and a (splendid) 'sustained' fragment, whose principles are too long to explain here: check the liners!
Flower is a Stevens/Watts duo, defined as 'hyper minimalist' by Martin Davidson, with a reason; sax and percussion play single notes that might or might not fall in the same place at the same moment, thus making the music sound like an old clock about to die and let all its springs out. Silence counts a lot here, even if the very last minutes introduce a change of sorts, Stevens' cymbals shifting the piece towards a more elastic interaction between the two musicians."
MASSIMO RICCI - TOUCHING EXTREMES 2007
"Flower rounds out the Watts/Stevens duo session on QUINTESSENCE; it's a Simon Says game-piece in which each player mirrors the other, until at last they break the frame for a free jazz finale. The half-hour Familie Sequence (1968) offers a unique SME lineup of three horns - Watts on bass clarinet(!), Kenny Wheeler on flugelhorn, Paul Rutherford on trombone - plus Norma Winstone's wordless vocals. The performance grows out of a unison melody whose each note is released as slowly as a breath; eventually, after multiple twists and turns, the piece dissolves gently into hocketing clicks and toots. At times the music suggests a cross between Albert Ayler and Morton Feldman's Three Voices for Joan La Barbara - though apparently Stevens actually had Japanese gagaku in mind. Quartet Sequence (1971), another half-hour track, documents the same SME lineup that recorded BIRDS OF A FEATHER and 1. 2. ALBERT AYLER (both sadly out of print). The lyrical intertwining of Watts's soprano sax and vocalist/guitarist Julie Tippett's singing is especially memorable, and there are also spiky contributions by the young, ill-fated bassist Ron Herman. A central section subjecting SME's trademark scuttling interplay to teasing cuckoo-clock repetitions is particularly unusual and effective. As with the other tracks, it's a surprise that music this exceptional waited so long for release."
NATE DORWARD - CODA
"Familie Sequence is a beautiful thing - at the start, the musicians hover around a sustained pitch, which quite obviously instills profound discipline into them. Imperceptibly they 'dare' to move away from the comfort zone it provides until a chromatic note too far bursts the floodgates, and a busy group conversation ensues. From this slightly depersonalised starting point, snatches of Wheeler's clubbable lyricism and Winstone's trademark turns of phrase rise to the surface, while Stevens subtly shades from behind his kit. Quartet Sequence, with Julie Tippett, is a confident and purposeful 30 minute construct in which the group's old allegiance to jazz resurfaces. A Stevens-Watts duo, based on a 'click' concept, with an impressive tautness of structural control, concludes."
PHILIP CLARK - THE WIRE
"For the SME, improvisation wasn't just a musical outlet; it was also a guiding dictate of ensemble design. John Stevens’ imagination had few, if any, parameters when it came to instrument and musician combinations. The three groups documented on this new Emanem archival release illustrate the breadth of his creativity while also highlighting some of his more formalised approaches to group improvisation. At over a half hour in duration, Familie Sequence from the summer of '68, is a challenging proposition at face value. The piece starts with a series of overlapping tones from Winstone and the horns, bracketed by arrhythmic and sometimes muffled beats from Stevens' pared down drum kit. Winstone's wordless vocals work well in collusion with the horns and are often quite beautiful. The first third of the piece stays largely free of any discordant features and the floating effect produced by the absence of a consistent grounding element is at once liberating and somewhat disconcerting. A second section moves into more familiar free improv territory, but the final third is given over to what Stevens called 'Sustained' and 'Click' pieces, the recipes for which are described by Stevens' in the disc's notes, but are also explained by the shorthand of their names. Clipped drones of varying durations and timbres ferry the piece to conclusion.
Also hovering around a half hour, Quartet Sequence, from the spring of '71, builds from a more familiar free improv framework. Herman's busy strident bass and Stevens more prominent percussion give the piece a stronger rhythmic root than its predecessor and also reveal audible free jazz influences. These elements are especially prominent in the middle section where the four engage in an incendiary Aylerian blowout. Tippett’s vocals make for another surprising fit with the instruments, though her approach is quite apart from and more assertive than that of Winstone. Flower features Stevens and Watts in a duo that is given over mainly to minimalist, spatially gauged taps and pops. It's only in the final minutes that the musicians expand the palette beyond metronomic repetition and into more populous and aggressive free playing. while I can appreciate the rubric behind Stevens’ intent, its application works better in the service of five instruments rather than two.
Martin Davidson's accompanying notes do a thorough though succinct job of relaying the history behind the music and the disc is definitely a learning experience, one that I would strong encourage any student of the SME to invest."
DEREK TAYLOR - BAGATELLEN 2007
"Davidson has been able to mine the vaults for previously unreleased sessions by SME that are of astonishing artistic quality. FRAMEWORKS documents improvisations from three different sessions over the course of five years. What is particularly intriguing about this release is that, as the title suggests, it focuses on the frameworks Stevens used to spark collective improvisation. Like Anthony Braxton, Stevens hit on the idea of cataloging timbral elements or sound producing strategies as formal foundations - for free improvisations. The half-hour piece, Familie Sequence, starts by layering long notes that juxtapose the timbres of vocals, bass clarinet, and percussion off the warm pairing of flugelhorn and trombone. Gradually, the piece builds to a collective improvisation which then moves into structural sections based on the counterpoint of tiny click gestures and more loose sections of sustained layers. Quartet Sequence is about as close as SME comes to free jazz. Starting out with a keening theme, Tippett and Watts ride over the open movement of bass and drums. The four move on to deconstruct the theme, looping repeated elements in jagged patterns that move increasingly toward freedom finally resolving into hushed breathy sustains. The disc ends with a Stevens, Watts duet from 1973 recorded at the Little Theatre club. The 9-minute improvisation begins with cycles of austere, clipped soprano against ticks of percussion only building into more active freedom 7 minutes in."
MICHAEL ROSENSTEIN - SIGNAL TO NOISE 2007
"A fascinating sampling of music from unusual SME line-ups. Winstone's vocals are remarkable and reflect an often overlooked aspect of Stevens's concept, which put the human voice at the centre of the action, even implicitly, as in Watts's strongly vocalized tone. The second piece, from 1971, has Tippett in the vocal role, with Stevens, Watts more familiarly on soprano, and the brilliant Ron Herman (who died prematurely) on bass. It's already a more evolved but also more simplified language, not perhaps as immediately stirring as the earlier group, with its echos of Stevens's most extreme pieces, but certainly very effective. As a bonus, this CD contains an ultra-minimal [Stevens/Watts] duo performance from the Little Theatre Club in 1973; Flowers is a genuine SME rarity, like a plain but hitherto uncatalogued orchid, very precious."
RICHARD COOK & BRIAN MORTON - The Penguin Guide to JAZZ RECORDINGS, 9th edition 2008
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