Spontaneous Music Ensemble

Bare Essentials (1972-3)
Emanem 4218

Definitely dedicated to playing reductionist music, the sound of the Britain’s Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) was even more mininalist in the early 1970s, since the SME at the time was a duo: Trevor Watts on soprano saxophone and John Stevens on percussion.

Resuscitated from tracks recorded by Watts on a portable cassette player, Bare Essentials presents complete and edited performances by the duo from nine concerts in 1972 and 1973 that took place in Wolverhampton, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and London’s now legendary Little Theatre Club. With the 16 tracks running in length from slightly more than a minute to slightly less than 32½, none of the music – with possibly one exception – is absolutely indispensable. However the overall two-CD set is engrossing, letting you trace the two applying different strategies and approaches to the material.

Completely improvised, the tunes skirt the permission to fail that has always been part of the EuroImprov ethos – although the most egregious missteps have supposedly been excised. In many cases the pieces also pinpoint the difference between Free Music and Free Jazz. On several tracks for instance, Watts and Stevens manage to creatively outline singular broken octave improvisations that skirt each other’s output without ever reaching harmonic unison. Because of what one supposes was some previous discussion – or the almost decade of playing together the two had put in by that time – there are no gaping musical holes or sonic confusion anywhere.

Stripped to its essence, Watts’ expositions encompass a collection of single tongue stops and slaps, extended trills, reed bites and chirps plus guttural cries. Evidentially fastening on various parts of his kit at assorted junctures, Stevens creates singular and frequently wholly original timbres. There’s the clatter and bang of disassociated snares, the bolo-bat-like thump replicating a whirl drum, curt cymbal resonation, wood-block knocks, pitter-patter rebounds and hand-and-elbow drum top excursions. Defiantly primitivist when it comes to his cornet playing, the drummer uses it and his voice as additional sound generators usually subservient to his drumming – even if the kit isn’t in use.

Aurally “Newcastle 72B” for example resembles a metaphoric sound recreation of two miniature, nervous puppies chasing one another. The harmonic discord created by the saxophone and brass evolves from tongue-stopping and wet reed snaps to a contest among shrill peeps and squeaks. In contrast, “Open Flower 7” finds Watts clutching a single note for an extended series of permutations as Stevens pops and rattles his toms and snares. Adagio, by the conclusion, these reed chirps become flinty and muffled (perhaps against a pants leg).

“Lowering the Case” features a variation on traditional call-and-response from the two horns whose sounds almost dissolve into inaudibility after showcasing shrill continuous pitches. Braying, the single straight line they both agree upon subsequently begins to meld sfumato-like into slurs and overblowing as they conclude.

Bare Essential’s one most vital track is also the longest and one of the earliest. Its more-than-half-hour duration was the length of some jazz LPs of the time.

Entitled “For Phil” and honoring jazz drummer Phil Seamen who died earlier that day in 1972, it’s a heartfelt raging wail against the inevitable rather than a threnody. Germinated from Watts’ shrill split tones plus popping drum rebounds and skitters from Stevens, it accelerates into an echoing gritty vibrato from the saxophonist and answering cornet warbles and gurgles from the drummer. Mercurial, melancholy and guttural, the affiliated split tones soon become strident and banshee-like, followed by significant silences, as if the two are rethinking their game plan. Stevens’ blunt rim shots, cymbal shakes and wood block slaps become ceremonial and are then superseded by his own yodeling lamentations. With Watts’ broken-octave reed bites now roughed up with growls and flattement, before the rubato denouncement, Stevens squeezes in an approximation of a military bugle playing “Taps”.

A rare glimpse into the raw creative process, this set will be welcomed those who want more SME. Scholars also have another document with which to compare and contrast with the contemporary playing of BitImprov’s other sax-percussion duo of the time: Evan Parker and Paul Lytton. Academe aside, fans of Watts, Stevens or both won’t be disappointed.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: CD A: 1. In the Midlands 2. In the Middle 3. Three Extracts 4.For Phil CD B: 1. Newcastle 72A 2. Newcastle 72B 3. Open Flower 1 4. Open Flower 2 5. Open flower 3 6. Open Flower 4 7. Open Flower 5 8. Open Flower 6 9. Open Flower 7 10. Opening the Set 11. Beyond Limitation 12. Lowering the Case

Personnel: Trevor Watts (soprano saxophone, voice) and John Stevens (percussion, cornet, voice)