JOHN STEVENS percussion + cornet (+ voice)
TREVOR WATTS soprano saxophone (+ voice)
A1 - IN THE MIDLANDS - 5:51
A2 - IN THE MIDDLE - 19:59
A3 - THREE EXTRACTS - 16:56
A4 - FOR PHIL - 32:25
B1 - NEWCASTLE 72A - 15:51
B2 - NEWCASTLE 72B - 7:59
B3 - OPEN FLOWER 1 - 2:20
B4 - OPEN FLOWER 2 - 3:36
B5 - OPEN FLOWER 3 - 7:02
B6 - OPEN FLOWER 4 - 2:34
B7 - OPEN FLOWER 5 - 1:02
B8 - OPEN FLOWER 6 - 2:49
B9 - OPEN FLOWER 7 - 8:25
B10 - OPENING THE SET - 4:27
B11 - BEYOND LIMITATION - 8:15
B12 - LOWERING THE CASE - 9:27
All analogue concert recordings made by TREVOR WATTS
A1: Wolverhampton (Polytechnic) - 1973 APRIL 5
A2: London (Little Theatre Club) - 1972 OCTOBER 5
A3: London (Little Theatre Club) - 1972 SEPTEMBER 20
A4: London (Little Theatre Club) - 1972 OCTOBER 13
B1 - B2: Newcastle-upon-Tyne - 1972 NOVEMBER 30
B3 - B9: London (Little Theatre Club) - 1973 JANUARY 5
B10: London (Little Theatre Club) - 1973 FEBRUARY 2
B11: London (Little Theatre Club) - 1973 JANUARY 28
B12: London (Little Theatre Club) - 1973 MARCH 9
Total time 149:57
All previously unissued
Ever since I heard this duo, I have thought that if any music deserved to be called minimalist it was this one, because they managed to strip the music down to its bare essentials yet keep its content - unlike so much minimal art that seems to 'throw out the baby with the bathwater'.
For most of the years 1972 and 1973, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble was the duo of John Stevens and Trevor Watts (with others added from time to time on an ad hoc basis). One should not, however, think of this as an ‘in between’ phase – it was an intense period of exploration and experimentation. They used to rehearse in private most days, and perform in public most weeks usually at the Little Theatre Club in London where most of this music was recorded.
When an opportunity of a record release arose, Stevens tended to put a special enhanced group together rather than use a regularly working group. I was so taken by this duo being a complete group, that I was determined to issue an LP by them unenhanced when I started Emanem in 1974. Hence FACE TO FACE, recorded late 1973. Over thirty years later, we now have a most unexpected but very welcome opportunity to listen to some earlier work by this duo.
At the time, some people thought this music was cold, clinical and lacking variety. These recordings show that it was far from all that – it varied from the emotional ferocity of Free Jazz heard in parts of FOR PHIL to the quiet stillness heard in LOWERING THE CASE. All this was achieved with Trevor Watts just playing soprano saxophone, and John Stevens playing either his small drum set or his recently acquired cornet. (They also made some use of their voices.)
Portable cassette players became generally available around 1970, and Trevor Watts was one of the first people to use one to extensively record performances. Such machines were extremely convenient to use, but they tended to make noisy recordings. However, it has now been possible to clean up the sound thanks to the wonders of modern digital technology.
Watts recently went through his cassette archive and came up with several hours of duo recordings that he made with Stevens in late 1972 and early 1973 – a period not otherwise available on record. Prior to this release, there were no published small group SME recordings made between the mid 1971 quartet with Julie Tippett and Ron Herman and the duo in late 1973; and there were no published examples of Stevens’ cornet playing from before late 1973.
I set about going through this material, cleaning up the sound, and reducing the quantity to a manageable amount (with Watts’ approval). A few items were eliminated because the recordings were faulty. Some performances were dispensable because they were similar to others, but not so inspired. Most of the finally selected pieces have been edited – after all it was Stevens who alerted me to the art of editing improvised music!
Thus IN THE MIDDLE comes from a 38-minute performance which got off to a tentative start. Then towards the end, Stevens sounds as though he lost interest – something he often did after feeling that a successful piece had run its course. These two lesser parts have thus been removed to leave a very fine middle 20-minute section. At first sight, Watts’ playing may seem limited, but further listening and acclimatisation reveals an apparently infinite supply of ideas. Watch out for a conversational section where Stevens just plays wood blocks, bells and elbow-tuned drums - the two players particularly seem to fit together hand-in-glove there. This contrasts with the forward momentum of IN THE MIDLANDS which starts the CD.
The conversational aspect is even more obvious on THREE EXTRACTS, which is now the earliest recording of Stevens’ cornet playing to be issued. This track consists of the start of a 29-minute cornet and saxophone duo, along with two later excerpts, eliminating three less inspired sections. After a fairly equal discourse in the opening, the second extract finds Stevens repeating a note which goads Watts into some very emotional playing, followed by a section in which Watts alternates voice and saxophone notes in a very African way. The third extract involves a considerable amount of flexible droning.
It can be argued that improvisations should not be edited to enable one to follow the whole flow. Or that it’s interesting to hear how musicians like Stevens and Watts managed to get themselves out of relatively dull situations. However, I think that a published recording designed for repeated listening should only really contain the best bits. After all, there are non-musical as well as musical events that influence improvisation, and we rarely know what happened to musicians in the period before the performances.
In one case we do know of an outside event: The great jazz drummer Phil Seamen died earlier on the day that FOR PHIL was recorded. This heartfelt performance is included here complete. It begins in a very stark manner as if the duo were coming to terms with the sad news they had just received. The momentum picks up sporadically, somewhat abetted by Stevens’ wailing, and eventually reaches a fever pitch at the height of which the drums are replaced by the cornet. The tension subsides as the two horns go through a funereal section, and quieten down to some afterthoughts. How can this be called ‘abstract music’? It’s one of the most moving requiems I have ever heard.
The two complete NEWCASTLE pieces are perhaps more typical of the duo’s work at the time – very moving within their somewhat static environment. They both generally stay in a particular area, but the first one has a surprising final section.
Around the change of year, the duo started concentrating on Stevens’ extreme minimal click piece FLOWER. They carried on in this manner for most of the year – an austere period of removing everything but the bare essentials – and an example from the following October has been released on FRAMEWORKS. Both Trevor Watts and I feel that the later released performance tells one all one needs to know about the formal aspect of the piece, so the clicking aspect has been left out of the January pieces heard here leaving just the ensuing free sections.
The seven OPEN FLOWER tracks, like the later FACE TO FACE pieces, show how one of Stevens’ basic conceptions can result in improvisations taking off in several different directions. Note how the music goes off in a somewhat unexpected direction half way through the third one when Watts, momentarily left on his own, boils over. BEYOND LIMITATION is another example from a few weeks later of where the same concept can lead, with Stevens adding a complementary vocal line. OPENING THE SET is the start of their performance at a festival they organised at the Little Theatre Club.
LOWERING THE CASE contains an example of a different sort of minimalism that they often indulged in - a very quiet and slow section that anticipates some more recent directions - something that can also be heard on other recordings from the period. (This section was difficult to clean up as the music was quieter than the hiss, which may be the reason why this area of playing didn’t really catch on until the advent of digital recording.)
Trevor Watts plays superbly throughout these two CDs. He actually plays superbly throughout all of the unedited cassettes, whereas John Stevens was always trying something else and not always succeeding. However, his playing is magnificent on the music included in this album, and there is much of his unique small kit drumming which somehow implied both momentum and stasis at the same time. But perhaps the most amazing aspect is their togetherness – they often sound one four-armed person playing two instruments.
MARTIN DAVIDSON (2007)
"John Stevens and Trevor Watts are vitally important in the history of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (and so of improvised music) but the only previous album of the duo alone is FACE TO FACE. From 1968 to 1976 the two often were the SME. But when recording opportunities came up, Stevens usually opted for an expanded version rather than this minimal version. However, from 1970 onwards, Watts recorded SME performances onto cassette tapes. This release comes from his tape archive, and dates from 1972 and 1973 - a treasure trove of previously unreleased music. (Incidentally, the tapes have cleaned up miraculously well and have a very acceptable sound, displaying none of the hiss that cassettes are prone to.)
This album is well named; it literally finds the SME stripped down to the bare bones. It is impossible to find a redundant phrase here, so concentrated and focused is the music. Stevens and Watts know each other so well that they play as if the music comes from a single mind. High as their strike rate was, subtle editing enhances it further. Stevens was notoriously mercurial as a performer; he would experiment in front of an audience, often spectacularly but sometimes unsuccessfully. Judicious editing ensures that we hear his successes.
It is impossible to do justice to all of this album's high spots, so numerous are they. The thirty minutes piece For Phil was recorded on the day that drummer Phil Seaman - a huge influence on Stevens - died. The grief and emotion felt by the duo is tangible; the piece can make raw, painful listening, but the music itself is stunning. It moves from a mournful opening lament played by Watts, with understated drumming from Stevens, gathering energy as the drummer punctuates the music with vocal ululations, before reaching a roaring climax as cornet replaces drums and a horn duet ensues, at times reminiscent of 'The Last Post'. Finally, with their energy and grief temporarily spent, there is a reflective section. Magnificent.
Totally different, but highly illuminating about the duo's working methods, are the seven different takes of Open Flower, based on Stevens' initial starting point. They illustrate the different directions that each start can lead to-and very different they are, from the prolonged squalling horn piece that is Open Flower 3 to the brief (but highly concentrated) Open Flower 5. Together, they demonstrate the strength and pleasure of free improvisation - never predictable, never rehearsed, never safe.
The closing track, Lowering the Case anticipates developments that are still being worked through, featuring music of extremely low volume. A central section, featuring a minimal exchange between cornet and soprano saxophone sounds highly contemporary, as indeed does the whole piece. It is extraordinary that it was recorded thirty five years ago, a sign of how influential Stevens was - and remains."
JOHN EYLES - ALL ABOUT JAZZ 2008
"The 1972-1973 era of the group, during which John Stevens and Trevor Watts were its sole members, was seminal to the development of the drummer-guru's approach to free improvisation. During that period, Stevens and Watts focused on minimal musical canvases or concepts that allowed them to explore the inner depths of free improvisation. The 2-CD set BARE ESSENTIALS culls recordings from that period, carefully selected from cassette recordings made by Watts at concerts. Sound quality is very good, thanks to the original recordings being made with two microphones and a vigorous digital clean-up. The set offers a varied look at the pair's work, from the aforementioned canvas-based experiments to more 'regular' SME improvisations. In the latter categories are the two tracks from Newcastle 72 (a highlight) and most of disc 1 (In the Midlands, In the Middle). The 32-minute piece For Phil was recorded soon after Stevens and Watts learned of the death of jazz drummer Phil Seamen earlier that day, and the performance gets particularly emotional (SME style, of course). It also includes a poignant sax/cornet duo. Disc two contains seven examples of what resulted from Stevens' 'extreme minimal click piece' Flower - not the 'concept' part of the piece, but what ensues after, showing how a simple (though very difficult) set of improvisation rules can lead to very different results. Also noteworthy on disc 2 is the minimal cornet/sax duo Lowering the Case. Although less essential than FACE TO FACE, BARE ESSENTIALS chronicles a key period in the development of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, and makes for a fascinating - and demanding - listen."
FRANÇOIS COUTURE - ALL-MUSIC GUIDE 2008
"Playing regularly in London's Little Theatre in 1972-73, Stevens and Watts developed a distinct and extraordinary minimalism that reduced improvisation to a naked human music, comparable to the plays of Samuel Beckett or the late figurative painting of Philip Guston. It was previously documented only on FACE TO FACE, the 1973 realisation of a Stevens exercise in which each musician concentrated on producing only the most minimal response to the other's notes. The 150 minutes of material here, dating from between September 1972 and April 1973, was recorded by Watts on cassette, and it substantially expands the documentation of a brilliantly creative period in the group's history. The sound palette is narrow: Stevens plays a stripped-down drum kit or, just as often, cornet; Watts sticks to soprano saxophone; each vocalises occasionally. Within that format the music ranges from flurries of free jazz to a concentration on isolated tones. What sustains it is its commitment to the moment, an absolute awareness of the potential for meaning in the instant of human exchange. This is apparent in the taut dialogues of Three Extracts and reaches levels of extraordinary pain and intimacy in For Phil, a 32 minute elegy for the drummer Phil Seamen who had died earlier that day. Though freely improvised, it's more compelling than a composed requiem, a direct expression of anguish and loss that seems eventually to find liberation in its own internal processes, Stevens' wailing vocalisation at one point recalling Sunny Murray in a kind of drummers colloquy. Lowering the Case and the multiple episodes of Stevens' Open Flower are similar to the previous FACE TO FACE," in which free improvisation is reduced to a singular concentrated gesture. Watts' explosive playing on Open Flower 3 seems to suddenly coalesce all that might be said/played at any one time, while in Opening the Set the listening is so close that soprano and cornet approach unison. What we hear throughout these two discs is music with all distraction erased."
STUART BROOMER - SIGNAL TO NOISE 2008
"The Stevens/Watts album FACE TO FACE is another landmark to set beside THE LONGEST NIGHT (Ogun OGCD 022/023). Emanem has now supplemented it with BARE ESSENTIALS, a generous two-CD selection of Watts's cassette recordings of live gigs from slightly earlier in the duo's history. Sound quality is purely documentary but surprisingly decent considering the source material; it's a bit swishy for headphone listening, perhaps, but sounds OK on the stereo.
I'd previously thought of the duos with Evan Parker as spartan in the extreme, but hearing this stuff is a corrective. It's amazingly stripped-down, to the point where it's sometimes hard to think of it as 'music' in any usual sense of the word. At times these performances conjure up the stately pointillism of a Noh play accompaniment; at other times they yield to a raw play of voices that's half Beckett endgame, half Bob Cobbing yawp (there's a lot of Stevens's trumpet here, as well as yowly vocals and growls from both players). There's a ritualistic quality to Stevens's drumming on these tracks which reveals a debt to Edward Blackwell's avant-tribal beat. Watts plays soprano throughout, in a style that's every bit as percussive and pointillist as the drummer's, and just as sensitive to changes in the emotional weather. The more you listen, the more the saxophonist's restricted sonic palette seems enormous, ranging from gruff remarks to slender lyric morsels to ear-blistering intensity.
More than FACE TO FACE, this collection shows the many different directions these players were exploring, some looking back to free jazz or even (like Ayler) to earlier, pre-bop musics, others pointing towards current trends in ultraminimalist improv (as is underlined by Martin Davidson's titling one track Lowering the Case). Above all, this music still has the capacity to surprise, unlike so much by-the-books improv: as exhibit A, sample the seven brief Open Flower tracks, all deriving from an identical ultra-minimal sound-study but shooting off in strikingly different directions, including a scorching Watts cadenza on Open Flower 3. The most astonishing track, despite being a little dimly recorded, is For Phil, a half-hour improvisation recorded the day the great British drummer Phil Seamen died. It begins as a sorrowful, minimalist funeral march and reaches a grisly climax two-thirds of the way through, before Stevens turns to trumpet for a furious Aylerian elegy and soft farewell. It's the capstone of a rich, illuminating collection of music; there's a certain eat-your-vegetables severity to it all, to be sure, but Mom was right: veggies really do taste better than junk food."
NATE DORWARD - PARISTRANSATLANTIC 2008
"Definitely dedicated to playing reductionist music, the sound of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) was even more mininalist in the early 1970s, since the SME at the time was a duo: Trevor Watts on soprano saxophone and John Stevens on percussion.
In many cases the pieces also pinpoint the difference between Free Music and Free Jazz. On several tracks for instance, Watts and Stevens manage to creatively outline singular broken octave improvisations that skirt each other’s output without ever reaching harmonic unison. Because of what one supposes was some previous discussion – or the almost decade of playing together the two had put in by that time – there are no gaping musical holes or sonic confusion anywhere. Stripped to its essence, Watts’ expositions encompass a collection of single tongue stops and slaps, extended trills, reed bites and chirps plus guttural cries. Evidentially fastening on various parts of his kit at assorted junctures, Stevens creates singular and frequently wholly original timbres. There’s the clatter and bang of disassociated snares, the bolo-bat-like thump replicating a whirl drum, curt cymbal resonation, wood-block knocks, pitter-patter rebounds and hand-and-elbow drum top excursions. Defiantly primitivist when it comes to his cornet playing, the drummer uses it and his voice as additional sound generators usually subservient to his drumming – even if the kit isn’t in use.
Aurally Newcastle 72B for example resembles a metaphoric sound recreation of two miniature, nervous puppies chasing one another. The harmonic discord created by the saxophone and brass evolves from tongue-stopping and wet reed snaps to a contest among shrill peeps and squeaks. In contrast, Open Flower 7 finds Watts clutching a single note for an extended series of permutations as Stevens pops and rattles his toms and snares. Adagio, by the conclusion, these reed chirps become flinty and muffled
Lowering the Case features a variation on traditional call-and-response from the two horns whose sounds almost dissolve into inaudibility after showcasing shrill continuous pitches. Braying, the single straight line they both agree upon subsequently begins to meld sfumato-like into slurs and overblowing as they conclude.
BARE ESSENTIALS' one most vital track is also the longest and one of the earliest. Its more-than-half-hour duration was the length of some jazz LPs of the time. Entitled For Phil and honouring jazz drummer Phil Seamen who died earlier that day in 1972, it’s a heartfelt raging wail against the inevitable rather than a threnody. Germinated from Watts’ shrill split tones plus popping drum rebounds and skitters from Stevens, it accelerates into an echoing gritty vibrato from the saxophonist and answering cornet warbles and gurgles from the drummer. Mercurial, melancholy and guttural, the affiliated split tones soon become strident and banshee-like, followed by significant silences, as if the two are rethinking their game plan. Stevens’ blunt rim shots, cymbal shakes and wood block slaps become ceremonial and are then superseded by his own yodeling lamentations. With Watts’ broken-octave reed bites now roughed up with growls and flattement, before the rubato denouncement, Stevens squeezes in an approximation of a military bugle playing 'Taps'.
A rare glimpse into the raw creative process, this set will be welcomed those who want more SME. Fans of Watts, Stevens or both won’t be disappointed."
KEN WAXMAN - JAZZWORD 2008
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