1966-1992: Spontaneous Music Ensemble: Challenge / New Surfacing
European free music, experimental, and lowercase improvisation would look and sound quite a bit different without the presence of England’s Spontaneous Music Ensemble, active from 1966 until the death of constant fulcrum and percussionist John Stevens in 1994 at age 54. Stevens was a fixture in West London and studied music while in the Royal Air Force where he formed relationships with other notable UK modernists, alto saxophonist Trevor Watts and trombonist Paul Rutherford (1940-2007). Influenced by British bop tour-de-force Phil Seamen, Stevens was something of a regular at the storied Ronnie Scott’s club, but searching for something beyond bebop led him, Rutherford and Watts to form a group that quickly developed into the Spontaneous Music Ensemble.
While a name like “Spontaneous Music Ensemble” might imply a sense of complete openness and absence of predetermined form, the SME at its outset was decidedly more reined in. Taking cues from American forebears like reedman Eric Dolphy (whose untimely death was still fresh on musicians’ minds) and saxophonist Ornette Coleman, the SME played compositions from the books of its three principals. Curiously, it didn’t take long for the group to record, and with Canadian expatriate trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and Australian troubadour bassist Bruce Cale in tow (replaced on two tracks by premier London bop bassist Jeff Clyne), the SME cut eight pieces for issue on the tiny Eyemark label as Challenge in 1966. Long out of print and in heavy demand, the Emanem label reissued it with two extra tracks in 2001, and now that CD has once again become available.
“E.D.’s Message” starts the proceedings and is certainly Dolphy-esque in its sprightly charge, though the ensuing improvisation from the horns is a tumbling swath of variegated colors, bright but with a density more akin to the music Albert Ayler and the New York Art Quartet were creating in East Village lofts. Watts’ acerbic wail is thoughtfully behind the beat and takes center stage with the burbled goads of his fellow hornmen, while Stevens takes a mostly unaccompanied solo suspended between Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, and Sunny Murray before the ensemble makes a pensive reentry. “Club 66” has a curiously isolationist thread to its improvisations, with trombone, flugelhorn, alto, and bass each taking pensive, exploratory themes against Stevens’ impulsive shimmer, bookended by a clarion near-waltz theme that recalls the writing of trumpeter Booker Little. “Day of Reckoning” is tough and declamatory at its anthemic outset, but the interactions between brass/reeds, bass, and percussion display a delicately taut interdependence. It is clear that even when the SME engages the structural trappings of jazz in a “free-bop” setting, the nuanced improvisations between those lines are a greater focal point and may actually have little to do with thematic material. That dichotomy is in itself quite interesting and, while it eventually required abandoning tunes altogether, the isolated movements that lie between the frames create a uniquely tense environment.
The CD reissue of Challenge also includes a lengthy open improvisation, “Distant Little Soul,” from early 1967 with Stevens, Watts, saxophonist Evan Parker and the obscure bassist Chris Cambridge (who wrote the liner notes to the original LP); Watts doubles on piccolo here and his flights mesh beautifully with Parker’s slick soprano inroads. While not particularly sought out by record companies, the SME did wax a number of LPs after Challenge, and a track like “Distant Little Soul” is indicative of the group’s exploratory dedication whether or not a formal recording session was possible. By 1968’s Karyobin (Island), tunes had been dropped in favor of incisive free conversations with defined lengths, and while open improvisation was the group’s focus, it was with a shared, evolving language that emerged through constant playing and workshopping. Even as strict “heads” were jettisoned, Stevens did workshop motives for improvisation such as the “Click Piece” and the “Sustain Piece,” utilizing short, sharp sounds or long tones as a basis for group playing with the idea that people of varying skill levels may have much to contribute.
By the early 1970s the SME had pared itself down to consist only of Watts and Stevens, with the latter employing an extremely small kit; he also began playing cornet as well as using his voice. As the music evolved, the SME’s improvisations demanded as much attention to silence and detail as they did a thick sonic palette. Adding onto the small frame of a dryly tuned, minimal drum set and breath/voice was an occasional but significant necessity, fleshed out in such combinations as the Spontaneous Music Orchestra and a variety of mid-size groups. Though Watts left the SME by the late 1970s to concentrate on his own groups Amalgam and Moiré Music, Stevens continued the ensemble with younger second- and third-wave British improvisers including guitarist Roger Smith, violinist Nigel Coombes, cellist Colin Wood, and (later) saxophonist John Butcher. Smith, Coombes, Wood, and Stevens comprised the SME of Biosystem (1977), which was released on the Incus label (and reissued on Evan Parker’s psi label), and saw the SME texturally reshaped into a sparse and darting strings-and-percussion unit.
New Surfacing consists of two live recordings from 1978 and 1992 with Stevens, Coombes and Smith, and presents what were previously cassette-copy fragments (originally issued on separate Emanem and Konnex CDs) in a definitive, straight-from-the-masters edition. The 1978 pieces were recorded in Newcastle as part of a set opposite multi-instrumentalist Steve Beresford’s duo with cellist Tristan Honsinger; while decidedly low-fidelity, the material represents excellently a quality that emerged in later SME music — that of roomy drift and frustrating “doldrums” against fidgety group impulsions. In fact, while it is fair to say that deep listening is a major part of the SME aesthetic, to the point that Stevens and company developed an intuitive language of play that went beyond even the subtlest aspects of jazz communication, independence and non-listening were also an important hallmark.
It seems like this counteractive improvisational sense was clearer in the group’s later edition, as Stevens plays against (or flat out rejects) the soaring lines of Coombes’ violin and Smith’s detuned, seasick acoustics just as much as he interleaves his sounds with theirs. It’s reminiscent at times of Weasel Walter’s boisterous clatter and anti-motion, as Stevens hacks, patters, and obsesses in direct, absurd contrast to the string players’ complex and sometimes romantic phrasing. This is even more clearly evident on the 1992 London piece, “Complete Surfaces,” which is taken from a crisp DAT recording and albeit with less ghostly spatial reverb, offers a punchier view of the music’s latticework with Smith’s guitar alternating percussive asides to Stevens’ nattering paths. New Surfacing doesn’t present the last recordings in the SME discography — for that one would have to hear A New Distance, recorded in 1994 for John Butcher’s Acta label (reissued later on Emanem), with Butcher’s tenor in place of Coombes’ violin for a decidedly rugged take on the group’s speedily obstinate improvisations.
A quick word about the Emanem label, which has tirelessly documented the recorded activity of the SME for close to 40 years: while Stevens’ music (which also included such groups as Detail and Away, among others) was by no means unheard, the evolution of his instrumental approach and the SME’s palette often happened apart from any sort of commercial recording schedule. Luckily, Emanem founder Martin Davidson has been able to release a significant amount of that music, and it’s hard to imagine that Stevens’ stature (or that of some of his contemporaries) would be the same otherwise. Originally based in the UK, Emanem has shifted home base a few times over its existence, including stints in the US and Australia, and recently relocated to Spain. Their catalog of contemporary and historical improvisation is impressive and well worth investigating beyond the Spontaneous Music Ensemble axis.
1984: 7 Seconds - The Crew
I’ve been reading Ten Thousand Saints, a novel about kids in the 80s. It’s a sad book, but I’m completely hooked on it, and part of the reason why is because a central part of the plot is straight-edge/youth crew. I mentioned this to a friend, and he told me about lyrics from The Hold Steady’s song “Stay Positive”: “When the Youth of Today and early 7 Seconds/ Taught me some of life’s most valuable lessons.” Everybody rambles on about Youth of Today and Minor Threat, yet unfortunately you don’t hear enough about 7 Seconds.
7 Seconds’ early records are an inspiring collection of aggressive hardcore, regardless if you’re clean and straight or huffing turpentine. Listening to their first album, The Crew, one can’t help but pump fists and find an elevated surface from which to stage-dive. Their sound is distilled (sorry) to a steady grind of too-pah beats and blender-like three-chord sounds, but it’s the combination of this minimalism and Kevin Seconds’s voice — passionate, melodic, hopeful — that makes you believe everything he says.
The group believed in hardcore like devoted Christians believe in Jesus and his teachings, romanticizing the scene, the sound, and the people involved. These days, they might be trolled on Twitter, Tumblr, and wherever else for their unabashed, unironic positivity, but all they wanted to do was tell you how awesome all of it was and how you could be a part of it by staying clean, fighting for your crew, and watching out for assholes.
1981: Scientist - Scientific Dub
According to Discogs, Scientist released no less than 10 full-length LPs in 1981 alone. Among these, Scientific Dub stands out for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that there is no overarching gimmick attached to the album title, tracklist, and cover art. Taken at face value, there are no boxing matches, space invaders, vampires, kingdoms, or wars to steal our attention; just Scientist, donning a lab coat (alright, so there’s a little bit of a gimmick), his high-speed hand motions pushing a heavily wired mixing board to the brink of short-circuiting. It’s an appropriate image, because that’s what this album is all about — the art of mixing, the engineer as conductor, the studio itself his instrumentation. These concepts might seem tired today, but remember that we’re talking about the early 1980s here, and while many an artist thrived in the dub paradigms established by Lee “Scratch” Perry and King Tubby, none did so with the prescient foresight and technical facility of Scientist.
Before Hopeton Overton Brown acquired this pseudonym, he was simply a neighborhood kid emulating his electrician father, repairing TVs, building amplifiers, and eventually, buying transformers and other electronic equipment from King Tubby. It was Studio One fixture Bunny Lee who nicknamed Hopeton “Scientist” after hearing the young handyman wax philosophical about the possible future of music engineering. “Everything you see that happened with the moving faders and all that, that was my original idea, but everybody thought I was crazy and thought that I was smoking too much weed,” said Scientist in a 2012 interview with LargeUp.com. “Automation with total recall, virtual tracks — I spoke about all that in 1980, when they didn’t even have a computer.”
Although Scientific Dub is not necessarily Scientist’s most experimental album, it does directly invite the listener to peer through the microscope, with a tracklisting composed of dub titles barely altered from their original form; Johnny Clarke’s “Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” became “Keep a Good Dub Rubbing,” The Tamlins’ “Baltimore” (released on the Taxi label) became “Taxi to Baltimore Dub,” Wayne Jarrett’s “Satta Dread” became “Satta Dread Dub,” Johnny Clarke’s “Every Knee Shall Bow” and “Bad Days are Going” became “Every Dub Shall Scrub” and “Bad Days Dub,” Jackie Mittoo’s “Drum Song” and “Darker Shade of Black” became “Drum Song Dub” and “Blacker Shade of Dub,” and Delroy Wilson’s “Just Say Who” became “Just Say Dub… Who.” By making little if any attempt to disguise his source material, Scientist practically issues a challenge to the original composers, as if to say, “No, this is how the song should sound.” Indeed, he has since outright issued this exact challenge to several non-reggae artists.
Putting aside the more obvious analogy of riddim recycling, this game of one-upmanship is not dissimilar to the way rappers “remix” popular singles by freestyling over their instrumentals, often while employing the original cadence and chorus. In this sense, Scientific Dub could be considered a proto-mixtape, with Scientist taking on the dual roles of selector and DJ (or DJ and MC if you prefer the hip-hop terminology). He’s the selector in the sense that he’s choosing the music you’ll hear, and he’s the DJ in the sense that his mix, and all the zany sound effects included therein, takes center stage as the lead voice. We can even find traces of Scientist’s DNA in the work of Robert Earl Davis, Jr. a.k.a. DJ Screw, whose story, tragic death notwithstanding, mirrors that of Hopeton Overton Brown in more ways than one. Both artists came from areas with rich musical traditions, both cornered the market with signature sounds that would inspire legions of would-be copycats, and both would forever change the sound of music in and outside of their genres. Furthermore, just as Scientist called upon a rotating roster of studio musicians (most famously Sly & Robbie and the Roots Radics) to play the day’s riddims live for his dub mix, Screw assembled various Screwed Up Click members to record freestyles over popular instrumentals, which he then hit with his own patented chopped-and-screwed technique. Finally, both artists, during the height of their popularity, were surrounded by unsavory characters and challenged by industry politics. The difference is that whereas Scientist removed himself from the limelight, stopped making music for a while, and moved from Jamaica to California, only to see his songs pirated by Greensleeves Records, DJ Screw died of an overdose in Houston before ever getting the chance to hear his sound imitated by the world’s biggest pop stars.
One could say Scientific Dub is Scientist’s 3 ‘N the Morning Part 2. It’s not his most popular work — Screw is most definitely best known for “June 27,” Scientist probably for Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires — but it offers perhaps the greatest insight into the peculiarities of his specific sound. For that reason, it’s worth revisiting time and time again.
1980: Sheer Smegma (Teddy and the Frat Girls) - “Clubnite”
Most of what’s known about the band Sheer Smegma, later rechristened “Teddy and the Fratgirls,” could fit on a 4x6 index card. Their scant biography can be assembled from various defunct punk blogs scattered throughout the internet, but it all boils down to this: they were an all-girl four-piece whose self-released debut 12-inch got picked up by Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles (allegedly behind the back of the band’s bass player and chief songwriter) and who, shortly thereafter, disbanded and were never heard from again.
The five-song EP that comprises the entirety of Teddy and the Fratgirls’ recorded output more than lives up to its legend. It’s the audio equivalent of a John Waters film, complete with scaterotica, sex change polka, and whatever the hell is going on with the “Egg Man Don’t Cometh.” The crown jewel of the whole set, and perhaps the only song on the record worth coming back to for more than the lulz, is the opening track “Clubnite.”
The word “primal” gets bandied around a lot in the world of indie rock journalism, but few songs earn it as hard as “Clubnite.” Its melody consists of little more than a single chord and a martial drum beat, and it sounds like it was recorded in an airplane hangar. The principal lyrics are divided into three short verses, repeated three times in sequence:
You wore black leather
You took my number
You left me horny
I gave you quaaludes
I held your cock
We spoke in diphthongs
My girlfriend blew you
I said I knew you
Little boy whore
On paper, the song is no different from the dirty-minded juvenilia that characterizes the rest of the EP, but Cookie Mold’s delivery elevates it to another level entirely. At her most controlled, the 16-year-old singer screams like a rabid animal treading water at the bottom of a well, and with each successive repetition of the lyrics, she becomes a little more unhinged. By the time the song starts to fall apart at the one-minute-eighteen-second mark, she’s barely even forming words through the larynx-shredding wails. It casts a sinister light on the otherwise slight lyrics: the repetition becomes unnerving, suggesting a single-mindedness bordering on obsession, and Mold’s tortured shrieks exude a rage totally out of synch with anything she actually says. It’s truly one of the most psychotic ditties ever set to vinyl and as fine freak-baby to crawl out of punk rock’s diseased womb as any other.
1993: 4 Non Blondes - “What’s Up?”
This isn’t a reassessment of an artist or its music. It’s a reassessment of age.
You see, I think 4 Non Blondes suck. But I didn’t always feel like that.
There are songs that mark our lives. Some remain with us forever, others get left behind, becoming nothing more than a weird smile to strangers and a familiar look for friends. I don’t think 4 Non Blondes belong to any of these categories. When “What’s Up?” started to pop up on the radio, “alternative” music was in full swing. The crying yelp of Eddie Vedder imitators was ubiquitous, sure, but it was within this context that made 4 Non Blondes sound like a revolution to me, a band that could change your life. They had the Bikini Kill lineup (three girls and a male guitarist), and their look was relatively weird. They were, to my 11-year-old mind, perfect.
And yet, I’m pretty sure 4 Non Blondes didn’t change any lives. “What’s Up?” is ridiculously simple and traditional. Singer (and later songwriter for Pink and Christina Aguilera) Linda Perry has a tremendous voice, yet she tended to overdo her vocal performance to the point of annoyance. It is, in essence, a trite song that frequently comes up on classic radio but still fails to capture the moment to the degree that songs like “Come As You Are” or “MMM Bop” did in the 90s. Everything about the song is trapped in 1993, even in the sense that it could be called “good.” But if you were like me at that moment and with a certain frame of mind, it was the best thing ever. I miss the feeling I used to get from the song’s simple chord progression.
1971: Neil Ardley - A Symphony of Amaranths
It wouldn’t be totally out of line to say that “post-rock,” the merger of rock, electric jazz, minimalism, and progressive music attributable to groups like Tortoise, cornetist Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra, or Gastr Del Sol, began decades ago in England. Psychedelic heroes the Soft Machine employed jazz musicians like reedmen Karl Jenkins, Lyn Dobson and Elton Dean; King Crimson boasted pianist firebrand Keith Tippett among its early personnel; Cream bassist Jack Bruce switched to contrabass for a number of jazz ensemble recordings and performances; and prog favorites Colosseum counted free jazzers Dick Heckstall-Smith (saxophones), Jon Hiseman (drums) and Tony Reeves (bass) in their ranks. This cross-pollination between creative improvisation and psychedelic/progressive rock wasn’t just limited to English musicians, but it was certainly a noticeable factor in the development of both forms.
Composer-pianist Neil Ardley (1937-2004) may not be one of the most well known in English vanguard circles, but hopefully that will soon change as more of his music resurfaces on disc. Influenced heavily by Miles Davis’ right-hand man Gil Evans, Ardley founded the New Jazz Orchestra in 1963, an ensemble that featured the cream of the British jazz crop and released two records in its lifetime — Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (Verve, 1965) and Western Reunion 1965 (Decca, 1965 — reissued on CD by Vocalion). An expanded NJO cut the shockingly beautiful A Symphony of Amaranths in 1971 under Ardley’s sole leadership, and while garnering Arts Council awards upon its release, it has remained one of the scarcer LPs in Ardley’s catalog. Released by Regal Zonophone (home to Tyrannosaurus Rex’s early LPs), the session features a who’s who of British jazz and rock — Jenkins, Hiseman and Heckstall-Smith appear, as do percussionist Frank Ricotti, trumpeters Derek Watkins, Harry Beckett and Henry Lowther, reed players Don Rendell and Barbara Thompson, pianist Stan Tracey, harpist David Snell, bassists Chris Laurence and Jeff Clyne, and vocalists Ivor Cutler and Norma Winstone. Now, vying for “reissue of the year,” A Symphony of Amaranths has been reissued on CD by Dusk Fire (and on LP via Wah Wah), cut from the original master tapes with an extra track from the same session — an amusingly syrupy tango “National Anthem” that recalls Carla Bley.
The title piece, dedicated to Evans and Duke Ellington, begins with lush and glassine interstices from glockenspiel, vibes, harp, and piano strings before horns and rhythm emerge in a stately, hard chug, bedded by a string ensemble carpet. Beckett and Thompson trade off flugelhorn and soprano saxophone skirls, popping out of a field of cracking traps and cascading detail. The second movement is appropriately titled “Nocturne” and couples taut gong and castanet accents with lilting, throaty strings and woodwinds, a light but cutting sway that supports Lowther’s incisive, romantic trumpet keen. “Entracte” begins with harp, piano, and glockenspiel in trio, reminiscent of Steve Reich at first blush, soon splaying out into crepuscular flourishes. Heckstall-Smith’s burred tenor is front and center on “Impromptu,” the orchestra in painterly washes against the rhythm section’s extraordinary clip. Heckstall-Smith is an interesting contrast against the more studied robustness of Don Rendell (a star of Ardley’s excellent Greek Variations LP from 1970, on Columbia), who follows suit — their trades against brash ensemble passages and pulsing minimalism keep the music from bogging in self-reflection in the final few minutes, encouraging a punchy close.
Surrealist poet and raconteur Ivor Cutler and jazz-rock vocalist Norma Winstone are the stars of “The Dong With A Luminous Nose” and “Three Poems,” which took up the original LP’s second side. Cutler’s dry, warbling delivery is weird enough on its own, but set against impulsive ensemble push and striking orchestral accent it’s part of an absolutely fascinating picture appropriate to Edward Lear’s poem. In fact, the affinity between Cutler and Lear is likely how this three-part collaboration came into being. Ardley wasn’t the first to employ modern poetry with improvised music — English pianist-composer Michael Garrick recorded a number of successful examples for the Argo label during the mid-Sixties as well, to say nothing of the extraordinary collaborations between 20th century “classical” composers and poets. As one might expect, Ardley has written and arranged the music for “The Dong With A Luminous Nose” to the extent that improvisation is less a focal point than inflection and support, which shapes music and word into a balanced whole. Winstone is a powerful singer quite different from Cutler, and soars in her breathy lyric presentations of brief poems by Yeats, Joyce, and Carroll. The music is more open here and recalls the reverberant intensity of Winstone’s own LP The Edge of Time (Argo, 1972, which Ardley participated in), creating a dreamlike but forceful sphere of activity.
A Symphony of Amaranths presents Ardley’s work in gorgeous, full, and detailed sound with copious liner notes and photographs, and is one of the (sadly) rare examples of a reissue done exactly right. Hopefully more of Ardley’s music will see reissue in the near future, but for now this cornerstone set will more than suffice, fleshing out sporadically available examples from his small but rewarding catalog. And while the cast of 29 British improvisers and classical performers really make this set sing, this reissue rightly sets into relief how extraordinary deep one man’s vision was.