KENNY WHEELER flugelhorn (1 - 3 & 6 - 9)
PAUL RUTHERFORD trombone (1 - 9)
TREVOR WATTS alto saxophone, soprano saxophone, piccolo
BRUCE CALE double bass (2 - 8)
JEFF CLYNE double bass (1 & 9)
JOHN STEVENS drums & cymbals (except 7)
EVAN PARKER soprano saxophone (10)
CHRIS CAMBRIDGE double bass (10)
1 - E.D.'S MESSAGE - 4:08
2 - 2.B.ORNETTE - 2:07
3 - CLUB 66 - 8:37
4 - DAY OF RECKONING - 8:33
5 - END TO A BEGINNING - 2:42
6 - TRAVELLING TOGETHER - 9:10
7 - LITTLE RED HEAD - 3:52
8 - AFTER LISTENING - 8:10
9 - END TO A BEGINNING - 4:16
10 - DISTANT LITTLE SOUL - 15:13
1-4 & 6-9 originally issued in 1966 as Eyemark EMPL 1002
5 & 10 previously unissued
Paul Rutherford, John Stevens and Trevor Watts met in 1959 when they were all in the Royal Air Force music school - a relatively painless and cheap way of getting a technical musical education. After leaving the RAF, Rutherford and Watts kept in close contact, sometimes co-leading a group, sometimes playing in the New Jazz Orchestra - a slightly adventurous big band. Both made their published recording debuts with the NJO in 1965.
Stevens became a member of the London modern jazz establishment, often working in Ronnie Scott's Club and other locales. There are unpublished recordings from late 1965 of him leading a modern jazz septet with Kenny Wheeler, Chris Pyne, Ray Warleigh, Alan Skidmore, Mike Pyne & Ron Mathewson. However, he did not appear on any published recordings before CHALLENGE, except on some pop singles with a group called The Carefrees. (One septet track did appear in 2012 on Reel Recordings 026.)
Two events at the end of 1965 and start of 1966 changed all this. First, Stevens met up again with Rutherford and Watts, and he became the drummer in their group. Second, The Little Theatre Club, in the centre of London's West End (in Garrick Yard near Leicester Square station), became available as a nightly base for the more adventurous musicians who wanted to take the music in directions beyond what was then the modern jazz norm.
The opening night of the Little Theatre Club on January 3 featured several groups, one of which was led by Watts with Rutherford, Stevens and two bass players - Jeff Clyne & John Ryan. Just over two months later CHALLENGE was recorded. In the interim, the group had become a co-operative and its name was changed to the Spontaneous Music Ensemble.
The music on CHALLENGE is largely in the free jazz idiom, with some items staying in tempo. Two of the titles (2.B.ORNETTE and E.D.'S MESSAGE) are dedicated to two of the principal influences - both then too way out for most of the establishment musicians. All of the composed themes by Rutherford, Stevens & Watts are very strong, as are the solo improvisational statements by all the musicians. The only obvious hints of what was to become the SME style of music occur in the collective improvisations on LITTLE RED HEAD and END TO A BEGINNING (particularly the second version that was used on the LP).
The other three musicians on these sessions, all of who had previously appeared on numerous published records, were people that Stevens had worked with on the modern jazz scene. Jeff Clyne has been a member of the London jazz fraternity since the late 1950s, making occasional forays into freer areas.
Kenny Wheeler came from Toronto to London for a two-week vacation in the early 1950s, and has lived here ever since. His unique angular lines always made him stand out as an individual voice in the modern jazz setting, so it is not surprising that Stevens asked him to join the SME. Wheeler had strong doubts about his ability to play in such a relatively free setting, but this recording (and others) show that these doubts were completely unfounded.
Bruce Cale was another modern jazz associate of Stevens. He was resident in London for a year and a half (1965-6), playing with many of the leading jazz musicians. He left to study at Berklee, and then settled in the San Francisco area for about a dozen years, before returning to his native Sydney. He now lives in the mountains of Queensland, and is mainly active as a symphonic composer.
These recordings (apart from the quartet version of END TO A BEGINNING) were issued briefly in mid-1966 on an LP on the short-lived Eyemark label, which otherwise specialised in recordings of railway steam engines and Jewish spoofs of Gilbert & Sullivan operas! Three recording dates (March 5, 12 & 19) were mentioned on the LP without any indication of what was recorded when. Trying to work out what was recorded at each session has proved virtually impossible. Based on musicians’ memories, and some sparse written evidence, it would seem that the two pieces on which Jeff Clyne replaces Bruce Cale were recorded in another studio some time after the March 19th session. Because of this uncertainty, the tracks are presented in the same order as on the LP, with the addition of the unissued item placed in between the two LP sides (as track 5).
The music evolved rapidly over next couple of years, thanks to the nightly explorations that were occurring at the Little Theatre Club. The recordings made in late 1966 and early 1967 (first issued in 1997 as WITHDRAWAL EMANEM 4020) show a remarkable change from the music of the CHALLENGE sessions.
The final track on this CD, DISTANT LITTLE SOUL, comes from shortly after the WITHDRAWAL sessions. Stevens and Watts were still on board. Stevens was still playing his fairly standard jazz drum kit - the small SME kit was still about three months in the future - while Watts was in a period when he was playing numerous wind instruments.
Evan Parker had joined the SME in the middle of 1966, but felt overawed in such company. This track is probably the earliest recorded example of him out of the shadows. Chris Cambridge was only around on the London music scene for a short period, and this may well be his only recording - which is a pity, because he sounds very good.
This very fine performance is, of course, not the end of the story. The music continued to evolve, as can be heard on subsequent recordings.
MARTIN DAVIDSON (2001 - revised slightly 2013)
Voted one of the 50 records of the year (2001) in THE WIRE
Among the top 10 jazz reissue records chosen in PULSE! - the magazine of Tower Records USA - by Art Lange 2001.
"The Spontaneous Music Ensemble began in the mid-'60s exploring free improvisation, and over three decades, with varying personnel but under the leadership of the late drummer John Stevens, became one of the pivotal ensembles in all of contemporary jazz. CHALLENGE was its premiere recording, and it's an exciting slice of rediscovered history. The band acknowledged its debt to Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy with the floating, open-ended 2.B. Ornette and the brisk, leaping E.D.'s Message respectively, but Travelling Together, a multi-tempo improvisation where the horns poke and pummel each other in group polyphony, and End to a Beginning, which starts with an ingenious theme that splinters off into spirited solos, give a clearer view of the ambitious, unorthodox directions the band would ultimately take. The soloists give off sparks - Trevor Watts' biting alto sax, Kenny Wheeler's probing trumpet and Paul Rutherford's bruising trombone - with Stevens' fluid drumming holding everything together. "
ART LANGE - PULSE 2002
"Throw on CHALLENGE in a blindfold test for even the most ardent fan of European free improvisation. Few would guess that this was the first document of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. Yes, there are tunes here with dedications to Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman and some of the most burning free jazz ensemble playing going! Make no mistake about it. This is music with clear ties to the free jazz developments of the mid-'60s. By the end of '66 they would go on to evolve a unique and personal approach to improvisation that would leave the influences of free jazz behind. But this document catches the musicians at a critical juncture. Here, they are grappling with the balance of swing and freedom; torrid solos and collective interplay; thematic improvisation and spontaneous invention. They tear into this set of thematic free exploration and deliver music that is imbued with hints of what was to come. Though there are a string of memorable heads and fervid solos, it is the collective interplay that stands out. Intros to tunes swirl around the shifting sense of time as the horn players duck and bob around each other before settling on the driving free swing that ensues. Rutherford's gruff trombone edges in on Watts' keening alto and Wheeler's clarion sweet tone cuts through the ensemble with a conceptual clarity. And underneath it all, Stevens propels things along with an elastic approach to time that stretches out into freedom without ever loosing a sense of pulse.
But listening to pieces like Travelling Together, Little Red Head, and the closing End to a Beginning makes it clear that these are musicians who are on the brink of a discovery. The inclusion of the 15 minute-long Distant Little Soul recorded in April of 1967 provides a telling contrast. Here, pulse and swing are set aside and in its place is a timbral exploration of bracing abstraction. Watts' piccolo is buoyed by the shimmering waves of Stevens' pointillistic percussion, Parker's spare probing lines, and Cambridge's resonant bass which acts as a grounding force. The improvisation unfolds with an open feeling of space and momentum that slowly gathers force as the four move toward a conclusion that climaxes with bristling energy in the final moments."
MICHAEL ROSENSTEIN - SIGNAL TO NOISE 2001
"For the world of free improvisation, CHALLENGE marks a major milestone. It represents the first recording of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, long-time standard-bearers of British free improv. One can view CHALLENGE as a launching point for a free-spirited group with a revolving door of personnel, but an ever-expanding sense of musical freedom.
The early SME placed more emphasis on composition than its later counterparts, and that's where a lot of the interest on CHALLENGE lies. For example, consider the Trevor Watts composition Day of Reckoning. This tune starts with a dyadic juxtaposition of short arranged passages with quick trips into free space. Then a high-stepping military march theme briefly kicks in, and all four members of the group fall into lock-step (irony, anyone?). From there, it's open territory. One by one, each player steps up to solo: Rutherford deliberately starts and stops, pausing carefully between phrases. Drummer John Stevens, a master colourist and percolator, generates propulsive bubbles of sound that envelop the melody instruments without drawing attention to himself. When saxophonist Trevor Watts steps in for his solo, he throws the gates wide open. He screeches, snarls, and squeals, but mostly pursues a highly melodic series of arcs and spirals that evolve over time. After a brief bass solo, the dyadic intro and military theme rear their heads again. Day of Reckoning clearly features fixed compositional elements, but it also allows for near-total freedom during the interspersed solos. It's representative of a lot of the tunes on CHALLENGE.
The final tune on CHALLENGE deserves special attention. The previously unreleased Distant Little Soul, a Stevens quartet composition of 15 minutes' duration, is the only piece featuring the soprano saxophone playing of Evan Parker. Parker is a wonderful foil for master reed player Trevor Watts, and together they break down plenty of barriers, playing with incredible versatility.
CHALLENGE is a must-hear for fans of the SME. To the naive listener, this record offers a cornucopia of sonic exploration. It's not for the weak of heart (or mind), but it's remarkably powerful if you're willing to open your ears (and your mind) to some new sounds. Even though CHALLENGE was recorded 35 years ago, it still sounds just as vibrant and fresh today."
NILS JACOBSON - ALL ABOUT JAZZ 2001
"These recordings are of historical importance. More importantly, they are a good listen. They are the earliest available recordings of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. The recordings capture free improvisation at the point in time when it was diverging from free jazz but when the two were still close enough to be obviously related. Over the next two years, largely because of nightly musical explorations and experiments at the Little Theatre Club in central London, SME's music evolved rapidly. (Compare this release with KARYOBIN, recorded in 1968, for evidence.)
In 1966, SME were still playing compositions credited to individual members, rather than free improvisations credited to all those involved. The rhythm section was still relatively conventional. John Stevens was still playing a standard drum kit, rather than the small SME kit he would soon adopt. As the 1966 sleeve notes proudly proclaimed of the music, 'It swings'. This music clearly shows the influence of Americans like Coltrane, Coleman and Dolphy.
There are also hints of the future, though. On Little Red Head and End of a Beginning that there are early signs of the SME's later, freer music but they still have a clearly agreed structure. Over the next quarter of a century, SME would radically alter the face of improvised music, making it into something distinct from jazz and into a recognisably European form. This CD marks the start of that process. It makes fascinating listening."
JOHN EYLES - ALL ABOUT JAZZ 2001
"4 stars. Pure pleasure is the way you might react to this glorious recording, which lays the foundation for the Spontaneous Music Ensemble's more radical works to come. In part a product of its time, these tracks are much more in the vein of Free Jazz than the abstract free improvisational style that came to characterize the group. On CHALLENGE, the lineage can easily be traced directly to the innovations of George Russell and Ornette Coleman, as the horns focus on short catchy riffs that segue to tight, focused solos. Kenny Wheeler's playing is a big surprise, with thrilling, crisp spurts that point in a different direction than the some of the more staid roads he later pursued. Paul Rutherford articulates cleanly, seemingly indebted to a somewhat conservative post bop aesthetic which he generally abandoned in later years, at least with the SME. Trevor Watts' footprints are all over, as he not only appears on each of the ten tracks, but he also is credited with three tunes and he solos vigorously and highly effectively throughout. The final Distant Little Soul was recorded more than a year after the others, and it features a quartet with a young Evan Parker and Watts on saxes. Parker is surprisingly (at least in retrospect) tentative, playing second fiddle to his more confident colleague, who performs impressively on both piccolo and alto sax. These seminal recordings stand the test of time; they are of considerable historical value, to be sure, but just as importantly, they sound fresh and exhilarating decades later."
STEVEN LOEWY - ALL-MUSIC GUIDE 2001
"CHALLENGE presents the Spontaneous Music Ensemble in its infancy stage (early 1966), not that the players were immature - they surely were undergoing heavy (trans)formation at the time but were already fine musicians - but the group had existed for only a couple of months and its music remained firmly anchored in post-bop jazz and free jazz, with Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman acting as godfather figures. When a slightly augmented line-up would record the WITHDRAWAL (EMANEM 4020) soundtrack six months later, the music would already have been freed from most jazz references.
All the pieces on CHALLENGE were written down by saxophonist Trevor Watts, trombonist Paul Rutherford, and drummer John Stevens. Melodic lines abound, elegantly penned and conveying a warmth that sharply contrasts with the bleak WITHDRAWAL recordings. Watts, Rutherford and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler play like a horn section - that alone says a lot. On Travelling Together, splashes of free improvisation are tied together by a short leitmotiv hook. It includes a solo feature for Stevens, who stretches a lot, showing that he was already thinking ahead of everybody (this LP was his first jazz/improv record).
The album was made available for a short time in 1966 on Eyemark. Emanem reissued it on CD in 2001, adding an alternate take of End to a Beginning and a 15 minute piece recorded a year later with a different line-up that included Evan Parker - the stylistic differences between this and what came before are simply astounding. An oddity when one considers the SME's whole output, CHALLENGE makes fascinating study for anyone interested in the group or in the development of free improv in general, but most of all it remains a thoroughly enjoyable free jazz album."
FRANÇOIS COUTURE - ALL-MUSIC GUIDE 2001
"The Spontaneous Music Ensemble was, to a degree, spontaneous, in that they determinedly reflected, and to an extent developed, the influences that were strong and powerful at the time. Equally though - and this comes over very strongly when the music is heard today - they were a highly disciplined outfit whose music demonstrates a sense of purpose and organisation. Sure, they're not afraid of all-in ensemble blowing, but it's always tight-rated and fed back to the overall scenario.
Watts' alto dissociates from Ornette; half Dolphy, half Ayler, with maybe a dash of Benny Carter, his is a powerful voice, whilst Rutherford once more shows why he's never had the credit he deserves by being more subtle, sly, allusive. Wheeler has great moments on After Listening, spiky and economical, elsewhere more inclined to listen and learn, supporting rather than leading.
The writing reflects its time as much as the solos, yet Watts' Club 66 kicks off from very bluesy moments, shows they're not afraid to look back as well as forward (not everybody was prepared to do that in those days): Stevens' contributions are more than just interesting - strongly rhythmic as you'd expect, but with a simplicity and clarity that makes them bracingly direct."
JACK COOKE - JAZZ REVIEW 2001
"Apparently taken from original analogue tapes, they've done a marvellous job of restoring all the high energy & freedom that was in these 1966-1967 sets. There is a 'full body' sound on all the cuts, so much so that you'll feel like you're right in the studio or club they were jammin' in! SUPER energy through the whole album. Jazz fans everywhere will love the sense of freedom... we give this a MOST HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!"
ROTCOD ZZAJ aka DICK METCALF - ZZAJ PRODUCTIONS 2001
"The SME had made an LP for the now extinct Eyemark label in the spring of 1966, working in a vein that was unmistakably free jazz. It has now been rescued from obscurity by the redoubtable Martin Davidson, and Challenge helps fill out an important gap in the documentation of the SME, and in turn the development of British free music. There is still a strong emphasis on written material, much of it palpably influenced by Eric Dolphy, whose jittery, thoughtful style is the obvious source of Watts's already distinctive approach. Stevens is a strong writer, and Little Red Head is an idea that someone should consider dusting down; tough and direct, it smacks strongly of the drummer's musical personality. Interestingly, it's Rutherford - that chronically overlooked genius of the trombone - who is the most distinctive soloist; like Watts, he sounds deeply rooted in the blues, but he also knows how to use huge portamento effects to give an orchestral richness to the group. Parker was not yet on board, but an extra track, Distant Little Soul, features him for the first time, recognizable but still somewhat diffident on soprano, contributing to a piece on which Stevens and Watts have already struck out for new territory, marking the shift away from free jazz to free music."
RICHARD COOK & BRIAN MORTON - The Penguin Guide to JAZZ RECORDINGS, 9th edition 2008
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