1967 recordings from the duo of John Stevens (percussion) and Evan Parker (soprano & tenor sax), plus Peter Kowald making the group a trio on two tracks; seminal work from three incredibly influential players.
Spontaneous Music Ensemble
Released in: Great Britain
Excerpts from sleeve notes:
LOOKING BACK. I interviewed EVAN PARKER in 1997 for the magazine Opprobrium, and asked him if he found playing with the SME restrictive at all.
I didn't feel particularly restrained. I felt a lot of what John was talking about, or the kind of method, such as there was one, was based on several quite simple rules: (1) if you can't hear somebody else you are playing too loud, and (2) if what you are doing does not, at regular intervals, make reference to what you are hearing other people do, you might as well not be playing in the group. I mean I've put it in my own language, but those were maybe the two most important lessons that John wanted people to learn when they played with SME. And so there was what you can call a compositional aesthetic which required musicians to work with those two kind of rules or ideals in mind.
A CONTEMPORANEOUS VIEW. The following review of an SME (John Stevens & Evan Parker) performance at the Little Theatre Club in London, was written by VICTOR SCHONFIELD in 1967 September. It was first published in the 1968 January 11 edition of Down Beat, and is reprinted with permission.
Stevens began presenting free improvisation sessions several nights a week at this club nearly two years ago. Since then, the club and the various editions of his Spontaneous Music Ensemble have been the focal points of the new freedom in Britain. The SME does not employ themes, frameworks for improvisations, regular tempos, or passages where a single player dominates, and melodies are of the a- or pan-tonal kind one would expect.
The current group was formed some months ago, and has been concerned with eliminating not just dominant individual contributions but individual parts as such. Each man plays responses to the other's work rather than his own and seems careful to avoid either imposing his own pattern on the music or using the other's playing as a background for a self-contained, self-expressing statement.
Both Stevens' and Parker's phrases are short and asymmetrical in themselves as well as by comparison with the phrases before and after, and although Stevens' rests are far briefer than Parker's, the two parts overlap in such a way that neither can be isolated and studied for long.
The surface of the SME's music is austere and varies little from moment to moment or piece to piece, the pieces being roughly 15 minutes of sound and silence, defined by longer silences, during which the musicians stop listening to each other. The noise-level rarely rises above moderate, and the textures of short-noted phrases are sparse and lucid.
Stevens has a marvellous facility for coining successive contrasting figures, each with its clear and lively speed, shape, and melodic colour. Currently, however, he intersperses these with less-defined equally spaced or eddying rolls, which do not move to a new part of the kit with each stroke, so that his work has calm, as well as nervous activity.
In addition to a fairly conventional grouping of drums and cymbals, his kit includes a stand to which are attached bongos, cowbells, and small cymbals in rows of four, and also a gong that, when given a slow tattoo, yields a sound in which three pitches are prominent at once.
Stevens often places his sounds in contexts that give them an explicit pitch, and his attention to detail (fine shadings of dynamics and timbre, different cycles of growth and decay, all from one basic sound) is exquisite.
Parker's style is unique, and I find it harder to describe than any other conception I have heard in the new music. His sound is flinty and rather staccato; variations of character between notes are restricted in range; his rhythms are fitful, and his melodies suggest a minor key. The outline of every phrase is both forbidding and similar to every other phrase, yet neither of these factors seems to be the key to his music.
The temptation is to say that his work is immature, or maybe a case of discontinuous improvising within preposterously narrow boundaries. The fact that inexperienced listeners hear every new player like this, plus the unmistakable purity and individuality of his work, makes me certain that any serious listener must persevere with Parker just the same.
Parker and Stevens seemed to break through to a deeper level of hearing, where a sound was not set against other sounds but rather against the silence around it, so that one gained heightened awareness of its growth and decay, its special colour, and of the vibrant stillness in which it took place. The outward sign of this was not silence itself, but very quiet sounds, sounds that were not cut off but allowed to decompose in their own way, in their own time, before being replaced.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTS by MARTIN DAVIDSON (1995-7).
Early in 1967, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) (1966-1994) was a septet comprised of Kenny Wheeler, Paul Rutherford, Trevor Watts, Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Barry Guy and John Stevens. They mainly used compositional frameworks and much instrumental doubling to make music with a large variety of colours, but had already moved a long way from the world of jazz in which they had started. On their recordings (issued in 1997 for the first time as WITHDRAWAL on Emanem 4020), Parker's presence is hardly noticed - he says he felt overawed in such company.
During the spring of that year, Stevens took over as sole leader, and instigated a change of direction towards a conversational type of free improvisation which put everyone on an equal footing. The emphasis was for each musician to listen to the contributions of the others rather than concentrate on their on their own playing - the antithesis of most of the then (and now) prevailing trends in music. This required Stevens to move from a conventional drum kit to a quieter collection of small drums and cymbals and other percussion - allowing other instruments to be able to converse on the same level.
Not all the other musicians immediately went along with this change of direction, and by the start of the summer the only full time members of the SME were Stevens and Parker, with Wheeler and/or Bailey added from time to time. In the autumn, Barre Phillips (on an extended stay in London) was often added, and in the winter, Dave Holland joined in, resulting in what was the second published SME recording - KARYOBIN (reissued on Chronoscope CD CPE2001-2
This disc contains the only known recordings of the duo of John Stevens (1940-1994) and Evan Parker (b. 1944) made during the nine months or so they were a trailblazing working duo. They subsequently made excellent duo records for Ogun in 1976 and 1993 - but that is another story. The first duo session here is superb in both contents and sound (albeit in mono). The second is a concert recording with ghastly echo, but the music manages to shine through.
The trio session with Peter Kowald (b. 1944), who was in London for a short vacation, was recorded at Les Cousins coffee bar. It also suffers somewhat, this time from an imperfect recording of the bass, and from a noisy audience. What were they talking about? Was it really more important than the music? Again, one has to live with these defects in order to hear the only known recordings of this significant meeting - the occasion being the first time the three played together.
• Show Bio for John Stevens
"John William Stevens (10 June 1940 in Brentford, Middlesex - 13 September 1994 in Ealing, west London) was an English drummer. He was one of the most significant figures in early free improvisation, and a founding member of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME).
Stevens was born in Brentford, the son of a tap dancer. He used to listen to jazz as a child, but was initially more interested in drawing and painting (media through which he also expressed himself throughout his life). He studied at the Ealing Art College and then started work in a design studio, but left at 19 to join the Royal Air Force. He studied the drums at the Royal Air Force School of Music in Uxbridge, and while there met Trevor Watts and Paul Rutherford, two musicians who became close collaborators.
In the mid-1960s Stevens began to play in London jazz groups alongside musicians like Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott, and in 1965 he fronted a septet. Influenced by the free jazz he was hearing coming out of the United States by players like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, his style began to move away from fairly traditional be-bop to something more experimental.
In 1966 SME was formed with Watts and Rutherford and the group moved into the Little Theatre Club at Garrick Yard, St. Martin's Lane, London to develop their new music. In 1967 their first album, Challenge, was released. Stevens then became interested in the music of Anton Webern, and the SME began to play generally very quiet music. Stevens also became interested in non-Western musics.
The SME went on to make a large number of records with an ever changing line-up and an ever changing number of members, but Stevens was always there, at the centre of the group's activity. He also played in a number of other groups, drumming in Watts' group Amalgam and later forming bands like Freebop and Fast Colour, for example, but the SME remained at the centre of his activities.
In the latter part of 1967 Evan Parker joined the SME and worked closely with Stevens in the group, eventually becoming one of the longest standing members. He later summed up Stevens' approach to improvising in two basic maxims: if you can't hear another musician, then you're too loud; and there is no point in group improvisation if what you are playing doesn't relate to what other members of the group are playing.
Stevens also devised a number of basic starting points for improvisation. These were not "compositions" as such, but rather a means of getting improvisational activity started, which could then go off in any direction. One of these was the so-called "Click Piece" which essentially asked for each player to repeatedly play a note as short as possible.
Stevens played alongside a large number of prominent free improvisors in the SME, including Derek Bailey, Peter Kowald, Julie Tippetts and Robert Calvert, but from the mid-1970s, the make-up of the SME began to settle down to a regular group of Stevens, Nigel Coombes playing violin, and Roger Smith playing guitar. During the mid-1970s Stevens played regularly with guitarist and songwriter John Martyn as part of a trio that included bassist Danny Thompson. This line up can be heard on Martyn's 1976 recording Live at Leeds.
From 1983 Stevens was involved with Community Music (CM), an organisation through which he took his form of music making to youth clubs, mental health institutions and other unusual places. Notes taken during these sessions were later turned into a book for the Open University called Search and Reflect (1985). In the late 70s and early 80s John was a regular performer at the Bracknell Jazz Festival.
Aside from SME, Stevens also ran or helped to organise groups that were more jazz or jazz-rock based, such as Splinters, the John Stevens Dance Orchestra, Away, Freebop, Folkus, Fast Colour, PRS, and the John Stevens Quintet and Quartet. He also contributed significantly to Trevor Watts' group Amalgam and Frode Gjerstad's Detail, as well as collaborating with Bobby Bradford on several occasions.
The SME continued to play, the last time being in 1994 with a group including John Butcher. Stevens died later that year."-Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Stevens_(drummer))
^ Hide Bio for John Stevens
• Show Bio for Evan Parker
"Evan Parker was born in Bristol in 1944 and began to play the saxophone at the age of 14. Initially he played alto and was an admirer of Paul Desmond; by 1960 he had switched to tenor and soprano, following the example of John Coltrane, a major influence who, he would later say, determined "my choice of everything". In 1962 he went to Birmingham University to study botany but a trip to New York, where he heard the Cecil Taylor trio (with Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray), prompted a change of mind. What he heard was "music of a strength and intensity to mark me for life ... l came back with my academic ambitions in tatters and a desperate dream of a life playing that kind of music - 'free jazz' they called it then."
Parker stayed in Birmingham for a time, often playing with pianist Howard Riley. In 1966 he moved to London, became a frequent visitor to the Little Theatre Club, centre of the city's emerging free jazz scene, and was soon invited by drummer John Stevens to join the innovative Spontaneous Music Ensemble which was experimenting with new kinds of group improvisation. Parker's first issued recording was SME's 1968 Karyobin, with a line-up of Parker, Stevens, Derek Bailey, Dave Holland and Kenny Wheeler. Parker remained in SME through various fluctuating line-ups - at one point it comprised a duo of Stevens and himself - but the late 1960s also saw him involved in a number of other fruitful associations.
He began a long-standing partnership with guitarist Bailey, with whom he formed the Music Improvisation Company and, in 1970, co-founded Incus Records. (Tony Oxley, in whose sextet Parker was then playing, was a third co-founder; Parker left Incus in the mid-1980s.) Another important connection was with the bassist Peter Kowald who introduced Parker to the German free jazz scene. This led to him playing on Peter Brötzmann's 1968 Machine Gun, Manfred Schoof's 1969 European Echoes and, in 1970, joining pianist Alex von Schlippenbach and percussionist Paul Lovens in the former's trio, of which he is still a member: their recordings include Pakistani Pomade, Three Nails Left, Detto Fra Di Noi, Elf Bagatellen and Physics.
Parker pursued other European links, too, playing in the Pierre Favre Quartet (with Kowald and Swiss pianist Irene Schweizer) and in the Dutch Instant Composers Pool of Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink. The different approaches to free jazz he encountered proved both a challenging and a rewarding experience. He later recalled that the German musicians favoured a "robust, energy-based thing, not to do with delicacy or detailed listening but to do with a kind of spirit-raising, a shamanistic intensity. And l had to find a way of surviving in the heat of that atmosphere ... But after a while those contexts became more interchangeable and more people were involved in the interactions, so all kinds of hybrid musics came out, all kinds of combinations of styles."
A vital catalyst for these interactions were the large ensembles in which Parker participated in the 1970s: Schlippenbach's Globe Unity Orchestra, Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath, Barry Guy's London Jazz Composers Orchestra (LJCO) and occasional big bands led by Kenny Wheeler. In the late 70s Parker also worked for a time in Wheeler's small group, recording Around Six and, in 1980, he formed his own trio with Guy and LJCO percussionist Paul Lytton (with whom he had already been working in a duo for nearly a decade). This group, together with the Schlippenbach trio, remains one of Parker's top musical priorities: their recordings include Tracks, Atlanta, Imaginary Values, Breaths and Heartbeats, The Redwood Sessions and At the Vortex. In 1980, Parker directed an Improvisers Symposium in Pisa and, in 1981, he organised a special project at London's Actual Festival. By the end of the 1980s he had played in most European countries and had made various tours to the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. ln 1990, following the death of Chris McGregor, he was instrumental in organising various tributes to the pianist and his fellow Blue Notes; these included two discs by the Dedication Orchestra, Spirits Rejoice and lxesa.
Though he has worked extensively in both large and small ensembles, Parker is perhaps best known for his solo soprano saxophone music, a singular body of work that in recent years has centred around his continuing exploration of techniques such as circular breathing, split tonguing, overblowing, multiphonics and cross-pattern fingering. These are technical devices, yet Parker's use of them is, he says, less analytical than intuitive; he has likened performing his solo work to entering a kind of trance-state. The resulting music is certainly hypnotic, an uninterrupted flow of snaky, densely-textured sound that Parker has described as "the illusion of polyphony". Many listeners have indeed found it hard to credit that one man can create such intricate, complex music in real time. Parker's first solo recordings, made in 1974, were reissued on the Saxophone Solos CD in 1995; more recent examples are Conic Sections and Process and Reality, on the latter of which he does, for the first time, experiment with multi-tracking. Heard alone on stage, few would disagree with writer Steve Lake that "There is, still, nothing else in music - jazz or otherwise - that remotely resembles an Evan Parker solo concert."
While free improvisation has been Parker's main area of activity over the last three decades, he has also found time for other musical pursuits: he has played in 'popular' contexts with Annette Peacock, Scott Walker and the Charlie Watts big band; he has performed notated pieces by Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman and Frederic Rzewski; he has written knowledgeably about various ethnic musics in Resonance magazine. A relatively new field of interest for Parker is improvising with live electronics, a dialogue he first documented on the 1990 Hall of Mirrors CD with Walter Prati. Later experiments with electronics in the context of larger ensembles have included the Synergetics - Phonomanie III project at Ullrichsberg in 1993 and concerts by the new EP2 (Evan Parker Electronic Project) in Berlin, Nancy and at the 1995 Stockholm Electronic Music Festival where Parker's regular trio improvised with real-time electronics processed by Prati, Marco Vecchi and Phillip Wachsmann. "Each of the acoustic instrumentalists has an electronic 'shadow' who tracks him and feeds a modified version of his output back to the real-time flow of the music."
The late 80s and 90s brought Parker the chance to play with some of his early heroes. He worked with Cecil Taylor in small and large groups, played with Coltrane percussionist Rashied Ali, recorded with Paul Bley: he also played a solo set as support to Ornette Coleman when Skies of America received its UK premiere in 1988. The same period found Parker renewing his acquaintance with American colleagues such as Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy and George Lewis, with all of whom he had played in the 1970s (often in the context of London's Company festivals). His 1993 duo concert with Braxton moved John Fordham in The Guardian to raptures over "saxophone improvisation of an intensity, virtuosity, drama and balance to tax the memory for comparison".
Parker's 50th birthday in 1994 brought celebratory concerts in several cities, including London, New York and Chicago. The London performance, featuring the Parker and Schlippenbach trios, was issued on a highly-acclaimed two-CD set, while participants at the American concerts included various old friends as well as more recent collaborators in Borah Bergman and Joe Lovano. The NYC radio station WKCR marked the occasion by playing five days of Parker recordings. 1994 also saw the publication of the Evan Parker Discography, compiled by ltalian writer Francesco Martinelli, plus chapters on Parker in books on contemporary musics by John Corbett and Graham Lock.
Parker's future plans involve exploring further possibilities in electronics and the development of his solo music. They also depend to a large degree on continuity of the trios, of the large ensembles, of his more occasional yet still long-standing associations with that pool of musicians to whose work he remains attracted. This attraction, he explained to Coda's Laurence Svirchev, is attributable to "the personal quality of an individual voice". The players to whom he is drawn "have a language which is coherent, that is, you know who the participants are. At the same time, their language is flexible enough that they can make sense of playing with each other ... l like people who can do that, who have an intensity of purpose." "-Evan Parker Website (http://evanparker.com/biography.php)
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• Show Bio for Peter Kowald
"Born 1944 in Germany, died 21 September 2002 New York City; double bass, voice, tuba.
Peter Brötzmann (Corbett, 1994) recounted that 'there was this young guy trying to play the bass, who was Mr Kowald, at that time seventeen years old. Peter lived with his parents. I had my little studio, so he was always hanging out at my place. But he had to be at home at 10.00, he was drinking milk. But we changed that, very soon. His parents were always very angry with me, because he never showed up at home anymore, he dropped studies of ancient languages, Greek and all that.' By this time (1962) Peter Kowald had been playing bass for two years and, with different drummers the two Peters were playing Mingus, Ornette, and Miles Davis things as well as listening to Coltrane, Stockhausen, Cage et al. Kowald was part of the European tour undertaken by the Carla Bley/Michael Mantler band in 1966 (also featuring Brötzmann) and then came work with other German musicians, membership of the Globe Unity Orchestra and the first recordings: Globe Unity, For Adolphe Sax and Summer 1967, recorded during a brief vacation in London. In particular, Evan Parker credits this visit to London for his invitation to play in the Pierre Favre/Irene Schweizer quartet and his subsequent longstanding involvement with German (and other European) musicians. Kowald's work with Brötzmann continued - on and off - on record at least, to the time of Kowald's death and included the Cooperative Trio with Andrew Cyrille, a duo on the Duos project and a recent mix of free jazz, hip-hop and rap.
Peter Kowald was a member of Globe Unity Orchestra for 12 years (1966 to 1978) and for much of this time played less of a side-man role and more of an equal partner - for example, conducting the band - with the person to whom the group has become most associated, Alex von Schlippenbach. His influence is particularly noticeable on Jahrmarkt/Local fair where the two sides of composition are by Kowald (as is the second side of Live in Wuppertal and he is also credited, along with Paul Lovens as 'producing' the record, presumably sorting out the sprawling theatricality and poor sound into two 'meaningful' fragments. In his notes to 20th anniversary, Schlippenbach emphasises the importance of Kowald in creating a programme that became a lot more 'colourful'; while further pointing out that he and Kowald gradually drifted further apart 'until one fine evening after lengthy discussions which resulted in a fight in a pub in Wuppertal, this chapter also closed'. However, before this ending, from 1973 to 1978, Kowald also worked with the Schlippenbach trio (Schlippenbach/ Parker/Paul Lovens), turning it for much of this time into a regular quartet.
Throughout his career, Peter Kowald worked with a wide variety of improvising musicians worldwide and in many considered and unusual situations. He recorded bass duets with Barry Guy, Barre Phillips, Peter Jacquemyn, Maarten Altena, Damon Smith and William Parker, released two solo bass recordings, and had regular groups with Leo Smith and Günter Sommer; with Joëlle Léandre and dancer Anne Martin (Trio Tartini); with dancers Cheryl Banks and Arnette de Mille and cellist Muneer Abdul Fataah (Music and Movement Improvisation); a trio with pianist Curtis Clark; a trio with Canadian alto saxophonist Yves Charuest and Louis Moholo; and Principle Life with Jeanne Lee, Klaus Hovman, and Marilyn Mazur. During the period 1980 to 1985 he was a member of the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra. He has spent periods in the US and in Japan and recorded three duo LPs (two CDs) with US, European and Japanese musicians. He also lived in Greece and similarly played and recorded with the Greek musicians Floros Floridis and Ilias Papadopoulos. By contrast, the 12 months May 1994 to May 1995 was designated Kowald's 'Year at home' project which comprised a mixture of solo works - out of which, to some extent, the last solo CD grew (Was da ist) - and group performances.
In addition, Peter Kowald collaborated extensively with poets and artists and with the dancers Gerlinde Lambeck, Anne Martin, Tadashi Endo, Patsy Parker, Maria Mitchell, Sally Silvers, Cherly Banks, Arnette de Mille, Sayonara Pereira, and Kazuo Ohno. Specific works included Die klage der kaiserin (1989) with Pina Bausch, Short pieces (since 1989) with Jean Sasportes, The spirit of adventure (1990) with Anastasia Lyra, Wasser in der hand (1990/91) with Christine Brunel, and Futan no sentaku/The burden of choice (1990/91) with Min Tanaka and Butch Morris."-European Free Improv (http://www.efi.group.shef.ac.uk/mkowald.html)
^ Hide Bio for Peter Kowald
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Catalog ID: 4005
Squidco Product Code: 17398
Country: Great Britain
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Recorded on August 1st and 16th, and September 17th, 1967.
Evan Parker-soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone
Peter Kowald-double bass
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1 Listening Together 1 4:41
2 Listening Together 2 8:41
3 Listening Together 3 4:44
4 Listening Together 4 4:26
5 Listening Together 5 7:18
6 First Cousins 14:38
7 Second Cousins 11:15
8 Echo Chamber Music 1 5:05
9 Echo Chamber Music 2 3:04
10 Echo Chamber Music 3 2:12