JOHN STEVENS

Live at The Plough
Ayler Records aylCD-007

Two of the most fervent of England's first generation free jazz/improvised music experimenters, drummer John Stevens (1940-1994) and alto saxophonist Mike Osborne (b.1941) aren't as well known as they should be for a variety of reasons.

Stevens, who for 30 odd years until his death directed various versions of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME), one of the seminal experiments in defining BritImprov, was a famously irascible character. A chameleon who could be playing super sensitive near soundless improv with partners like saxophonist John Butcher or trumpeter Kenny Wheeler one day and raucous jazz rock with lesser musicians the next, Stevens managed to alienate as many players as he inspired. More clearly jazzy, Osborne, who worked over the years in circumstances as varied as Mike Westbrook's big band and an all saxophone group with John Surman, was one of the U.K.'s "farthest out" freebopers in the 1970s. Unfortunately part of that "outness" resulted from a steadily worsening mental illness, which finally forced him to cease playing about a year after this live session was taped in 1979.

Third participant is bassist Paul Rogers — possibly on his first recording — who, happily, in the years since has gone from strength to strength, interacting with a variety of Continental and British improvisers, most notably as one-quarter of Keith Tippett's Mujician.

Folks familiar with the SME, Mujician and the players' other credentials may be surprised by some of the sounds created here. Recorded in a London pub, likely in an afternoon or early evening session, it seems like an exercise in Name That (Bop) Tune. Jumbling together heads from John Coltrane, Jackie McLean, Ornette Coleman, "Cherokee", "Suimmertime", snatches of popular tunes and jazz standards, the trio often seems to be struggling to get the attention of a crowd less than interested in the music. Pointedly Stevens asks for the jukebox to be turned off "please" at one juncture, while the burble of conversation continues unabated during Rogers bass solo on "Plough Story," which consists mostly of variation on Oscar Pettiford's "Blues In The Closet".

Resorting to dog whistle altissimo passages and repeatedly holding notes is Osborne's strategy for the gig. Then on the more than 23 minute "MO Recapulations (SIC)", the saxman seems to be quoting whatever is suggested by random phrases. "It Don't Mean A Thing", "Stranger In Paradise" and "Giant Steps" all make appearances. Meanwhile Stevens' heavy, tub thumping rhythm and fake book bop licks are as far away from the SME as The Plough was from the Barbizon Centre.

All in all, followers of any of these musicians — most especially Osborne — will welcome this rare "in-the-tradition" glimpse into their thought processes. But the inattentive audience and the boxy, tubby recorded sound often works at cross-purposes to what the trio was trying to achieve.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Blue Rondo 2. Plough Story 3. Carrousel 4. Cherokee 5. Summertime 6. The Restart 7. MO Recapulations Personnel: Mike Osborne (alto saxophone); Paul Rogers (bass); John Stevens (drums)