SPONTANEOUS MUSIC ENSEMBLE

QUINTESSENCE

EMANEM 4217

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JOHN STEVENS percussion, cornet
EVAN PARKER soprano saxophone
TREVOR WATTS soprano saxophone
DEREK BAILEY amplified guitar, guitar
KENT CARTER cello, double bass

A1 - FORTY MINUTES (part 1) - 19:32
A2 - FORTY MINUTES (part 2) - 20:39
A3 - THIRTY-FIVE MINUTES (part 1) - 25:42
A4 - THIRTY-FIVE MINUTES (part 2) - 8:56
B1 - TEN MINUTES - 10:07
 

JOHN STEVENS percussion, voice
TREVOR WATTS soprano saxophone
KENT CARTER double bass

B2 - RAMBUNCTIOUS 1 - 18:36
B3 - RAMBUNCTIOUS 2 - 4:47
B4 - DAA-OOM trio version 5:05
 

JOHN STEVENS percussion, cornet, voice
TREVOR WATTS soprano saxophone

B5 - CORSOP - 11:08
B6 - DAA-OOM duo version 10:19
 

All analogue concert recordings made in London by MARTIN DAVIDSON
A1 - B1: ICA Theatre - 1974 FEBRUARY 3
B2 - B4: Little Theatre Club - 1973 OCTOBER 18
B5 - B6: Little Theatre Club 1973 OCTOBER 11
Total time 135:35

A1 - A2 originally issued in 1986 as Emanem LP 3401 - reissued in 1997 on Emanem 4015
A3 - B1 originally issued in 1986 as Emanem LP 3402 - reissued in 1997 on Emanem 4016
B2 - B4 originally issued in 1997 on Emanem 4015
B5 - B6 originally issued in 1997 on Emanem 4016

 

Excerpts from sleeve notes:

The eight-five minutes of totally improvised music produced at the 1974 ICA concert are so cohesive that it sounds as if this quintet had worked together for some considerable time. However, apart from a brief sound check earlier that day, this was the only occasion that these five musicians performed together.

Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, John Stevens and Trevor Watts had been part of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble for a few months in 1967 [heard on WITHDRAWAL - Emanem 4020], which performed a transitional music that had departed from Free Jazz. What became the SME type of Free Improvisation arose later that year when the group had reduced to the duo of Stevens and Parker [SUMMER 1967 - Emanem 4005]. After a personnel change in 1968, Stevens and Watts became the nucleus of the SME until 1976. In the meantime, Bailey and Parker often performed together in various settings, and Bailey sat in with the SME from time to time.

Kent Carter, on the other hand, first visited Britain in mid-1973 as a member of a special Steve Lacy Quintet that also included Bailey, Stevens and Steve Potts [SAXOPHONE SPECIAL + - Emanem 4024]. He also played with Watts and Stevens in a very different, short-lived Free Jazz quartet led by Bobby Bradford [LOVE'S DREAM - Emanem 4096]. Although he came from a different background, Carter fitted in with the SME very well. Another indication of his breadth came later in 1974 when he recorded his first collection of solos and multi-tracks [BEAUVAIS CATHEDRAL - Emanem 4061].

For most of 1973, the duo SME performances of Stevens and Watts were very austere, concentrating on performances of the hyper-minimalist piece FLOWER. This piece was performed on October 11, and can be heard on FRAMEWORKS (Emanem 4134). The two duo pieces that preceded it that evening reveal other aspects of their repertoire.

CORSOP may well be a version of LACE, Stevens' piece inspired by Steve Lacy's sucking sounds. Note the section exploring the threshold of audibility - an area that became fashionable some two decades later. (Other musicians such as Paul Rutherford were also then exploring such quiet and tranquil areas.)

DAA-OOM, is a loose composition inspired by the music of both the central African pygmies and Albert Ayler. This was designed to be performed by a trio, as happened a few days later. Even decades later, the rawness of these pieces is still somewhat startling. When first issued, a famous musician described Stevens' vocal work as 'virtuosic', whereas an infamous writer called it 'ghastly'.

In the months prior to the quintet concert, there had been several trio performances at the Little Theatre Club. Bailey joined the Stevens/Watts duo there on at least four occasions [DYNAMICS OF THE IMPROMTU - Entropy 004]. There was a trio session with Parker (which does not seem to have survived on tape) following on from his participation in an Amalgam session, which was just about the first time that he had worked with Stevens for several years.

The results of an informal trio session on one of Carter’s visits to London are heard here. Three pieces were performed. The first, RAMBUNCTIOUS 1, is heard in its entirety - it is perhaps the closest thing to Jazz on these two CDs. The second, RAMBUNCTIOUS 2, was similar but less successful, so only the ending is included here. The third was based on Stevens' loose composition DAA-OOM, which takes its name from the bass part (missing in the earlier duo performance). The performance ran out of steam after about five minutes, so only the opening is heard. (When this session was first released, a reviewer wrote that this trio comprised Bailey, Carter & Stevens, and even went so far to compare it with that trio's later record!)

In the eighty-five minute ICA concert, all five musicians managed to both sound like themselves and sound like a group - a paradox that all good improvisers solve by listening to what the others are playing, and responding accordingly. This music is not an example of everyone going all out for themselves regardless of everyone else.

When John Stevens put this quintet together, he had envisioned that Derek Bailey would play acoustic guitar and Kent Carter cello. This instrumentation never happened in practice, since Bailey only used his unamplified '19-string (approx)' guitar during the second quarter of THIRTY-FIVE MINUTES whilst Carter was playing double bass, which he did for the first half of that piece. For the rest of the concert, Bailey used his 6-string guitar with two-pedal-controlled stereo amplification, and Carter played cello.

John Stevens' percussion kit comprised small cymbals and small drums with some bells and woodblocks. Both Evan Parker (heard on the left) and Trevor Watts (on the right) just(!) played soprano saxophones.

The first half of the concert consisted of one improvisation, FORTY MINUTES, which is included in full. The second half consisted of two improvisations, which are presented in the order performed. THIRTY-FIVE MINUTES has been edited very slightly in order to remove two brief moments of untogetherness - the total amount excised being less than one minute (the same as on prior releases). TEN MINUTES is complete as performed.

Even after listening to this music many times, it is still full of many surprises - very pleasant surprises, that is. However, the unexpected is what one expects when one puts five seasoned and original improvisers together. Certainly, anyone who likes all music to be completely predictable will get very little satisfaction here.

A few weeks after this concert, there was an unrecorded quartet session - Carter having by then returned to France. (There was also a trio performance by Bailey, Carter and Stevens at the Unity Theatre sometime that year, but it seems to have been forgotten since it was both untogether and unrecorded.) Some two years later, the SME underwent a drastic change in personnel, so that none of the musicians heard here were group members any more, apart from John Stevens.

MARTIN DAVIDSON (1986, 1996, 2006)

 

Excerpts from reviews:

"If you want to possess only one concert of this genre of music, the release of these two records is providential."

PHILIPPE RENAUD - NOTES 1987

"It's remarkable, really, how excellent and fresh the music sounds. This is a full-flight demonstration of the complexities and rewards available to good players in 1974. The key figure in the group is probably John Stevens. He uses a kit of very small drums and cymbals and a few percussive extras, and his playing is consistently sparse and ingenious. It's old hat to talk about percussionists 'colouring' the character of a group, but that is how Stevens works - he doesn't keep time, he doesn't keep anything. He barely even drums. There are beautiful moments towards the end of Thirty-Five Minutes where he picks up the cornet and the five players slide into a drone passage that's like an extended series of codas. Of the others, Bailey is surely more docile and accommodating than he would be now, Carter is oblique and mysterious, Parker and Watts are like awkward twins, one merry when the other is quiet but both of the same stripe."

RICHARD COOK - THE WIRE 1987

"Stevens' idea is for his musicians to listen to each other and produce separate equal parts that fit together as one, and this 1974 concert is one of the best examples of the SME on record. Of course, Trevor Watts, Evan Parker and Derek Bailey were crucial in creating this group improvisation concept originally, but Kent Carter, though only an occasional member, has fully absorbed the spirit. Sometimes stalking and pouncing on each other in short bursts, sometimes stretching out into true counterpoint or relaxing into more of a band sound, only once - just before the very end - do they get anywhere near a freakout, yet at all times their attention and the listener's is kept riveted."

VICTOR SCHONFIELD - JAZZ JOURNAL 1987

"This particular SME edition was a one-time affair, but one wouldn't know it from the cohesiveness of the music. The three [quintet] pieces present an excellent cross section of the individual players' styles and strategies as well as their various group associations. A predominant strategy associated with the SME, the so-called 'Ping-Pong' style in which players bounce overlapping, ever-changing sound or note riffs and motifs off one another, is present throughout. This is combined with several other tactics, including the rich layering of sounds, the blending and contrasting of ideas, and the sensitive dropping-out of particular players. Bailey and Carter do a fine job of providing an ever shifting backdrop, subtly and constantly influencing the overall sound and direction of the improvisations. Stevens provides a bubbling rhythmic undercurrent with his semi-toy kit, as well as a warbling commentary via amateurish though effective cornet work. The two sopranos dance around one another with both healthy tension and co-operation. In fact, tension, co-operation, and spontaneity are the watchwords of this concert. Five excellent players work strongly here as individuals and as a unit, making music not only for the moment, but for posterity as well."

MILO FINE - JAZZ FORUM 1987

Among the Lone Wolf Indie 100 chosen in PULSE! - the magazine of Tower Records USA 1997.

Among the top 15 reissues of 1997 chosen by readers of CADENCE.

Among of the 10 best CDs of 1997 chosen by HENRY KAISER:

"I think that this 1974 performance is just about the finest single performance of free-improvised music that I know of. The late Stevens was one of the primary forces behind the development of the English free improvisation movement that took the Afro-American free jazz developed by Coleman, Taylor, Ra, Ayler and Coltrane off into completely unexplored territory. On this CD you hear musicians playing music that is complete and unprecedented. Five players making the biggest musical paradigm jump that I know of. Difficult to access for many, I know, but for me there is more MUSIC and IMPROVISATION here per second than just about any other recording that I've ever heard."

HENRY KAISER - EAST BAY EXPRESS 1997

"Both Watts and Parker play soprano throughout. At that point, their styles were very close and there are times when the echoing of phrases between them reminds me of Bailey's later work with multiphonics. Bailey's playing is fully mature on these tracks. Carter's contribution is vital: this is after all a highly interactive music where everyone makes a difference. Hearing these discs I wish Carter had been around longer, rather than just dropping in for a while. Stevens is as much on a knife-edge as ever, continually goading the others to excel themselves, never letting the music rest in a comfortable groove for more than a microsecond."

RICHARD LEIGH - RESONANCE 1997

"(1) The previously issued Forty Minutes displays a marvellous close-knit group cohesion based on instrumental symmetries. Parker's and Watts' soprano saxophones are often to be heard exploring related areas of the altissimo register, while Bailey's fractured, irascible amplified guitar complements Carter's mellow pizzicato. Remaining tracks consist of three previously unissued 1973 trio performances by Stevens, Watts and Carter; the first and most compelling Rambunctious 1 is busy yet memorably sensitive. Stevens' light and breezy shifts of energy and emphasis on a few small drums and his delicate, quick-witted used of cymbals, are truly mesmerising.

(2) The previously released Thirty-Five Minutes and Ten Minutes provide further evidence that this was indeed a very special gig. Two previously unissued tracks feature the Stevens/Watts duo version of SME. Corsop for cornet and soprano saxophone has strong dialogic elements with both players listening intently and working beyond mere call and response patterns. The distinctive Daa-Oom hears Stevens' strange African pygmy-influenced vocals fervently echoed by soprano sax - long at 10 minutes, but sufficiently outlandish to hold the attention."

CHRIS BLACKFORD - RUBBERNECK 1997

"Here is collective improvising that's almost twenty-five years old, conveying state of the art freshness and the alert edge of explorers navigating a new frontier. Forty Minutes is a masterpiece of collective improvisation, and belongs in every music collection."

DAVID LEWIS - CADENCE 1997

"The three [quintet] pieces are collective improvisations of extraordinary depth and sympathy, work filled with a rare quiet intensity. The greatest achievement of the SME may have been its transparency, the sense of space and clarity that it maintained through Stevens' devotion to sparseness and close listening. That close listening is heightened here by the twinning of musicians.; Parker and Watts play only soprano saxophones, while Carter frequently plays cello, putting him closer to the range of Bailey's guitar. If you missed this music the first time around, it's essential hearing, perhaps purer in its improvisatory ethic than current work in the idiom."

STUART BROOMER - CODA 1998

"The 40 minute piece stands high on top of anything available by the SME: the true quintessence of Stevens' vision can be heard as the musicians give the best of themselves, remaining very personal in their playing (just compare Parker and Watts all the way through) while constantly keeping the focus on the group and the music happening here and now. Beautiful.

The level of abstract bliss reached on Forty Minutes is not matched, but Thirty-Five Minutes and Ten Minutes are still suitable complements: knowing that these five musicians had never played as a group before, the two improvisations impress by their level of listening and synergy."

FRANÇOIS COUTURE - ALL-MUSIC GUIDE 2001

"One of the most beautiful improv sets I've heard."

MARC MEDWIN - DUSTED MAGAZINE 2005

"One of the most beautiful EMANEM CD's ever!! Fantastic music, incredible clear and finely detailed quality recording work and beautiful presentation. It's a perfect product!! A quintessence!"

KRIS VANDERSTRAETEN - private email 2007

"Never was an album so aptly named. Recorded on February 3rd 1974 at London's ICA, these 85 minutes of music created by John Stevens (percussion, cornet), Derek Bailey (guitars), Kent Carter (cello and bass) and soprano saxophonists Evan Parker and Trevor Watts stand as one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, documents of free improvisation, full stop, period. Some might marvel that this was the first time all five men had actually played together, though considering that they'd already worked with each other in various combinations for several years, the extraordinary near-telepathic interplay between them and the quality of the music it helped create should come as no surprise. In improv, sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't. Most of the time it's better when it is happening, but even if it isn't it can be fun; mistakes, wrong turns down blind alleys, slight misunderstandings or even cussed bloody-mindedness can lead to some great music, and improvisers as different as Misha Mengelberg and Jack Wright have created a lifetime's worth of fine music by thriving on such tension. Others prefer to nurture longlasting relationships, Evan Parker being the most obvious example - his trio with Barry Guy and Paul Lytton has been around for about a quarter of a century, and the Schlippenbach Trio with Alex von Schlippenbach and Paul Lovens a decade longer than that. But however one chooses to plan out one's career, or whoever one chooses to play with, it all boils down to the same thing: improv is created in the moment, and in QUINTESSENCE there is, as the old cliché goes, never a dull moment. Never.

I could make quite a long list of such moments and attempt to draw your attention to what's going on in each of them ('check out Bailey and Carter at 16:45 in Forty Minutes (part 1) etc.) but what would be the point? You know how to listen, for Chrissakes. Or least you should do by now - if not what are you doing with this album in your CD player? But if by chance you don't, or you're coming to free improvisation for the very first time, these gentlemen will show you how to listen. And you'll listen hard - give this music the attention it deserves and you'll be as exhausted and exhilarated after it's over as these guys must have been that memorable night 33 years ago.

Davidson originally released QUINTESSENCE as two LPs in 1986, and again on CD in 1997. With his typical concern for filling up the compact disc with as music as can comfortably contain (there's so much information on an Emanem disc you often think it might spontaneously combust), this double CD package also includes performances from the Little Theatre Club in October 1973 - three trio tracks featuring Stevens, Watts and Carter (on double bass this time) and a couple of gems by the Stevens / Watts duo, including the amazing Corsop, whose explorations of tiny twitters and tweets often at the threshold of audibility seem to point forward to the lowercase improv that became à la mode over two decades later (drop the needle near the end and you could swear it's nmperign). The trio version of the raw, Ayler-inspired Daa-Oom (Stevens' wild yodels were described variously as 'ghastly' and 'virtuosic' - you decide which adjective best applies) apparently 'ran out of steam' after five minutes, but it's a hell of a five minutes, and makes for a fine comparison with the ten-minute duo version that rounds off the disc.

This is real Desert Island Discs stuff, and I'm left wondering why it didn't make it to the awfully self-indulgent Top 40 I compiled for these pages nearly four years ago. Remind me to put that situation right for 2013's Top 50. Meanwhile, I could quite happily listen to these two discs for the next six years, secure in the knowledge that I'll be as surprised and moved by the thrilling music they contain at each subsequent listen. Make sure you are too: if you missed out on the earlier releases of QUINTESSENCE, please don't miss out on this."

DAN WARBURTON - PARIS TRANSATLANTIC 2007

"After releasing this music on two LPs and then on two CDs, Emanem now re-release it on a double CD. In the process, the performances are put into a more sensible order. The vast bulk of their 1974 ICA concert (seventy-five out of the eight-five minutes) is now together on one CD. This concert featured the 'superstar' line-up of John Stevens, Evan Parker, Trevor Watts, Derek Bailey and Kent Carter, not the usual SME line up of the time.

Forty Minutes is frequently cited as one of the best free improvised group performances ever, and it is not difficult to hear the reason. Each of the five players is instantly recognizable and distinguishable from the others, and each is playing near the top of his form. However, the level of group empathy and interaction is such that one could imagine it was the product of long periods of rehearsal. Extraordinarily, this was the only time that the five ever played together.

Stevens' drums are placed right in the centre of the stereo mix, making everything else seem to revolve around him. But this is not true musically. While some of his devices are in evidence - for instance, there is an obvious 'sustained piece' towards the end of the track - this comes across as a group without an obvious leader, a group of five equals. The remainder of the concert, Thirty Five Minutes and Ten Minutes, maintains the same high standard, making the entirety a very stimulating experience, one that has stood the test of time and continues to deliver.

The album is completed by duo and trio pieces recorded at the Little Theatre Club in October 1973. While these do not reach the heights of the ICA concert, they are far more than fillers. Rambunctious 1, by Stevens, Watts and Carter, successfully spans the jazz-improv border. The bass and drums retain the status of equal partners in the trio, whilst the saxophone constructs passages more like conventional solos. The track has an appealing intimacy, as a mike occasionally picks up throwaway comments of appreciation and shouts of enthusiasm (possibly made by Stevens).

Daa-Oom (in both duo and trio versions) sets Stevens' yodelling and yelling voice against Watts' soprano sax, with each mirroring the other and occasionally attempting to outdo each other both in volume and coarseness of tone. Corsop features a similar duo, this time for cornet and saxophone. It also contains a contrasting section with playing at barely audible levels.

For those who already own this music, the repackaged and reformatted version represents a distinct improvement. For those who don't this is a welcome opportunity to experience the music for the first time."

JOHN EYLES - ALL ABOUT JAZZ 2007

"QUINTESSENCE compiles three dates from 1973 and 1974, most importantly an 85-minute quintet gig from the ICA Theatre by one of the finest SME lineups: aside from John Stevens (playing cornet as well as drums), there's the extraordinary pairing of Trevor Watts and Evan Parker on soprano saxophones, as well as Derek Bailey on guitar and the visiting American cellist/bassist Kent Carter. Though the music is so eventful it's like watching an agitated cloud of tiny insects, it is never haphazard: cup your hands and momentarily trap one of the creatures flying about, and you'll discover a perfectly formed micro-melody. Stevens's typically dry, barebones drum kit yields an extraordinarily rich and controlled range of sounds, from delicate taps to lopsided hi-hat gnashings. Parker and Watts fashion countless throwaway Lacy melodies from a reduced palette of chirps and twitters, while Bailey and Carter add slower, richer brushstrokes behind them. The other two sessions on the set - a Watts/Stevens duo and a trio with Carter - are well worth hearing but less achieved; the quintet gig, though, is one for the ages!"

NATE DORWARD - CODA 2007

"I still remember picking up SME's EIGHTY-FIVE MINUTES on LP almost 20 years ago. The intense, prickly interaction of Stevens, Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Trevor Watts, and Kent Carter was revelatory. Like The Music Improvisation Company on ECM and Parker, Bailey, and Han Bennink's TOPOGRAPHY OF THE LUNGS, here was an approach to improvisation that posited a new vocabulary; a new way of group playing. While this had been available on CD at one point, QUINTESSENCE reissues the two LPs in their entirety, placing the two long improvisations on one CD and the shorter 10-minute coda on a second CD. By the early '70s, SME fluctuated between mid-sized groups and more austere settings, often with just Stevens and Watts. These two sets bring Bailey and Parker back into the fold, adding bassist Kent Carter, who'd visited London several times in the mid-'70s. Here are five masters pushing each other while ever mindful of the collective aspect of the ensemble. While there are many areas of full-on intensity, one is struck with the open sound of the group and the constantly shifting dynamic planes of the music. The reissue is filled out with two sets from 1973, a trio with Stevens, Watts, and Carter, and a Stevens, Watts duet. The trio setting results are a bit uneven. Never one to skimp on filling out his CDs, Davidson includes two more pieces from a '73 duo set from the Little Theatre. The first piece pairs breathy blats and pinched microtones from Watts' soprano and Stevens' cornet. The final piece with shredded raw reed preying against Stevens' ululating vocals makes for unnerving listening. Even if the second disc isn't essential, it's great to have the quintet music back in print."

MICHAEL ROSENSTEIN - SIGNAL TO NOISE 2007

"QUINTESSENCE is a consistent collection, containing what many define as one of the best documents ever of improvised music - the 1974 concert at the ICA theatre by John Stevens, Evan Parker, Trevor Watts, Derek Bailey and Kent Carter - plus a clutch of interesting material that, in typical fashion, ranges from the viscerally absorbing to the almost irritating, always stimulating a reaction from the listeners who can't possibly remain in standstill mode when fronting this kind of impromptu expression. The ICA performance is alone worth of the whole set. The interaction between reeds and strings is often phenomenal, the ability of the players to maintain single-minded lucidity amidst ruptures, outbursts and yells totally impressive. In the most 'regulated' sections the quintet reaches Webernesque concentrated fragmentariness while maintaining a stunning cohesion throughout, Stevens hitting at the different parts of his instrument with elegant informality and genuine recklessness, Carter and Bailey pummelling, tickling and caressing the wood and the metal, Parker and Watts in reciprocal recognition, constant imitation, total abandon. Conjuring up words for music so dramatically intense is difficult to the level of pointlessness; a classic case of 'let the sounds do the talking'. The second disc presents chronicles from the trio (same personnel minus Bailey and Parker) and the duo (Stevens and Watts). This is unmistakably a wholly dissimilar proposition, at times slightly weaker but still comprising passages that clock-punching musicians can only hope to play once or twice in a lifetime while, for artists of this calibre, this is just another beer at the pub. Stevens uses vocalisations - very much in a shaman-like approach - in the two versions of Daa-Oom, his interaction with Watts an acrid symbolism of earthly energies, and in Rambunctious 1; be warned that if this sort of concoction is an unusual presence in your life, patience could be seriously tested. But a piece like the above mentioned Rambunctious 1 features levels of interplay that most jazzbos will dream of, a fierce autonomy tasted with every morsel. As for other SME releases on Emanem, an obligatory stop for those who are serious in studying the laws of free playing."

MASSIMO RICCI - TOUCHING EXTREMES 2007

"Kent Carter first came to Britain in 1973 with Steve Lacy. Despite coming from a radically different musical background, Carter fitted into the SME musical concept quite seamlessly. He recorded with Stevens and Watts at the Little Thatre Club in October of that year, and then joined the quintet form of the SME for the Institute of Contemporary Arts concert held the following February. Formerly available on two separate CDs, this music has now been brought together in a single package, which should be an essential purchase for any collection.

The first disc and the first 10 minutes of the second bring together all the ICA material, arguably a high-water mark in British improvisation. The remainder of the second disc consists of three trios (Stevens, Watts, Carter) from the Little Theatre Club and two duos (Stevens, Watts) recorded at the same venue a week earlier and including a first version of Daa-oom, a piece ostensibly inspired by African pygmy music and by Albert Ayler, and featuring Stevens's scarifying vocals.

The stereo separation of the two sopranos, cello and guitar leaves Stevens's kit very much in the foreground, and there are moments when the performance sounds almost like a concerto for percussion. The drummer's life-long interest in the aural equivalent of 'peripheral vision' seems already to be in play here, and it makes for fascinating listening. His awareness of his colleagues' playing is instinctive, but it is not studied. He seems to respond to them almost as someone might who is reading during conversation, not rudely or detachedly, but because he is able to. "

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

 

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