Spontaneous Music Ensemble: A New Distance (2005)
We all owe great thanks to Emanem, without whom there would be very little music available by the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. The archive of SME recordings on the label now numbers twelve, ranging from Challenge, recorded in 1966-7, when free improvisation was in its infancy, through to these recordings from 1993-4, not long before John Stevens' premature death in September 1994. In the intervening years, SME personnel changed many times, with Stevens being the only constant member, but its working methods and ideology remained focussed, thanks to Stevens clarity of purpose. Despite his central role, he was not the leader, that idea would have been met with scorn; SME was always a democracy.
Poignantly, this album opens with the voice of Stevens, introducing the long opener, "Stig, where the trio of Stevens, John Butcher, and Roger Smith gives a typically intense performance in front of a large audience (at Conway Hall). The concentration of the audience is almost tangible. The concentration of the players reinforces that notion of democracy. No one dominates; everyone is listening so hard it hurts. The smallest stimulus is met by a response, which in turn becomes a stimulus, and so on, back and forth, round and round. More intimate, but no less intense are four pieces recorded at the Red Rose Club before a small audience. Sometimes they require extreme concentration, being almost at the threshold of audibility, but such concentration is never wastedit is always repaid.
The album closes with two previously unissued studio recordings that add flute to the trio. Stevens' spoken introductions offer a fascinating insight into the SME's working methods and the serious thought he gave to the methodology of free playing. These alone are enough for me to strongly recommend this album to you. They offer a rare, priceless glimpse into the production of this music.
The influence of SME, via players who passed through its ranks or were inspired by seeing them perform, is incalculable but vast. They changed the way that many people heard; music would be hugely different had they not existed. Can there be greater praise?
Track Listing: spoken Intro; Stig; So this is official; Tape delight; Uneasy options; A certain elegance; spoken intro; Peripheral vision*; spoken intro; With Hindsight*; spoken conclusion
Personnel: John Stevens, small drum set & mini-trumpet; John Butcher, soprano & tenor saxophones; Roger Smith, Spanish guitar; Neil Metcalfe, flute*.