JOHN STEVENS small drum set & mini-trumpet
JOHN BUTCHER soprano & tenor saxophones
ROGER SMITH spanish guitar
NEIL METCALFE flute [0n 8 & 10 only]
1 - spoken introduction - 1:26
2 - STIG - 25:34
3 - SO THIS IS OFFICIAL - 3:59
4 - TAPE DELIGHT - 6:07
5 - UNEASY OPTIONS - 9:45
6 - A CERTAIN ELEGANCE - 4:14
7 - spoken introduction - 1:01
8 - PERIPHERAL VISION - 3:59
9 - spoken interlude - 0:50
10 - WITH HINDSIGHT - 3:29
11 - spoken conclusion - 2:24
1-2: Digital concert recording made in London (Conway Hall - 3rd Annual LMC Festival)
by John Greenough - 1994 May 28
3-6: Digital concert recording made in London (Red Rose)
by Ian Vickers - 1994 January 9
7-11: Digital studio recording made in London
- 1993 February 20
Total time 63:30
1-6 originally issued in 1995 as Acta CD 8
7-11 previously unissued
You can hear the results of John's deep listening to Sunny Murray (especially, I think, Murray with Albert Ayler) every time he touches a cymbal. Such lightness of touch, expressing such intensity. And sometimes John needed to be clumsy, too; even with the tiny kit he always used with the SME, that sound could be more scary than the biggest orchestral clusters.
A NEW DISTANCE has some of the last music that the SME played. Roger Smith had played with the group for at least twenty years. Not that you'd know it - his musical relationship with John always had an incredible freshness. Like John, his playing could slip in an instant from perfect grace to extraordinary apparent clumsiness, and he was even quieter (seeming to reduce his volume as his excitement increases). I'm pleased these recordings managed to capture his playing, especially as he tends to move away from microphones as if they were out to get him.
Is it too cheeky of me to say that John Butcher stands in relation to Evan Parker as Roger Smith does to Derek Bailey? Clearly he's absorbed much of Parker's techniques, but he has an entirely different agenda. I remember John Stevens discussing how excited he was when he first heard John Butcher's playing, and how delighted I was when I heard he'd joined the SME. Now it's difficult to imagine anyone else fitting in so well. (Which is not to disparage the improvised music community, brimming with unrecognised talent). He and Smith seem to have grown languages that are perfect for the most intricate group interaction. My ears are drawn to sounds I genuinely have never heard before. (Or after, this being free improvised music). All the same, Butcher and Smith have each made terrific solo records.
Stevens loved painters, and was especially fond of Malevich. Intensity, simplicity, grace, a love of dance, social commitment, clarity - all qualities found in Malevich's work. Malevich would take the simplest idea - a square, a cross - and give it life, just as John would hit on the most basic but effective starting points for his wonderful workshop pieces. And anyway, John too could paint, sometimes very well indeed.
The introduction has wisely been retained. Stevens' announcements were famous - I remember him being quite brusque to the large audience at drummer Terry Day's benefit. I was sure that they would react badly to his demands for quiet, and react worse to the SME's very intimate, closely focussed music. I was wrong. They hung on every note. The Red Rose show on this CD was sparsely attended by comparison, but some of the best music gets played to a small group of friends. (Stevens' understanding of the social functions of music was very important; few have picked up on the implications). The Conway Hall had a large, attentive audience and it was good to see the band playing for a longstanding, committed organisation like the London Musicians' Collective. Very little music I have heard gets close to the strength, bravery and intelligence of the SME groups. For nearly thirty years they proved that democracy in music not only works, it produces music of the highest possible quality. It gives me, and many others, the strength to keep trying, and it makes me laugh a lot, too.
John Stevens died on September 13, 1994. Those who passed through the SME - and there were many - are creating unique music of their own. Those who heard it and were changed by it are too numerous to mention.
STEVE BERESFORD (1995)
I'd never heard the early SMEs with Bailey, Parker, Watts, etcetera, or the 80s one with Smith and Coombes, but I do remember important interviews with John on 'free' improvisation and discipline, politics, music and life in the Melody Maker in the early 70s which nagged away at the back of my mind for many years. And many of the people I was listening to in the late 70s and 80s had been profoundly influenced by John. So, in retrospect, I think the 'SME approach' had influenced the wider scene so much that I'd picked up on it, without actually hearing the original.
Playing with John, I was struck by how he could generate incredible rhythmic propulsion whilst at the same time keeping the sound transparent. The track STIG is a good example. It meant that other musicians could play 'inside' his drumming, rather than just work on top of, or alongside, it. So it was possible for anyone to change the detail of the music at quite a subtle level, and quickly. There was no need for big gestures to cause an alteration in direction. Although John and Roger Smith had been playing together for over ten years, I didn't feel any musical exclusion when I joined. The 'method' let me get straight in with them.
JOHN BUTCHER as quoted in Julian Cowley's article on John Stevens published in The Wire (2002 October)
In recent years the playing had a tendency to be less precise and focused with more broadened and flattened strokes. A moment's silence was no longer demanded before playing and a wonderful sense of the absurd was encroaching a little into the music; for example, drum kits could collapse signifying the end of the shows. There were no longer any public statements of total abstinence from drink, etc., a regular occurrence at one time, and less and less desire to perform pieces. Titles became more infrequent. Periods of deep fragility and sensitivity were obvious. Immersion in the improvised music scene tired him and travel appealed less and less.
ROGER SMITH from an article on John Stevens published in Rubberneck (1995)
Added to this reissue are some studio recordings from a year earlier, when flautist Neil Metcalfe was also in the SME. There are four brief versions of a piece called PERIPHERAL VISION, and a short extract from an improvisation, as well as some of John Stevens' comments from an interview. John Butcher points out that PERIPHERAL VISION was the only time they played to any pre-arranged ideas during his tenure with the SME.
MARTIN DAVIDSON (2005)
"This is music I learned to listen to free improvisation by. Listening to it again, it still seems to me a textbook example of the genre's virtues, even though in many ways it has qualities that make it sound unlike anyone else's style of improvisation. Free improvisation (improvisation of any kind) inevitably involves a fair bit of chance overlap; there are some notable players who minimize overt interaction (the Derek Bailey style), while there are of course countless lesser players who just roar along optimistically. But on A NEW DISTANCE there's a rare, exhilarating feeling that every sound is significant, and that every member of the trio instantly grasps all that significance and acts on it - all the time. Though there are few of the 'who's playing what?' puzzles that turn up in other forms of improvisation, there's nonetheless a radical parity between the (similarly high-pitched) instruments, so that sounds become a form of currency, freely and rapidly exchangeable.
Plenty of musicians have emphasized close listening as the key to music making, but I don't know of any other music that takes that particular idea so far: every gesture on A NEW DISTANCE seems charged with anticipation of an immediate counter response. It's as satisfying an example of improvised music as any I've encountered; if you haven't yet heard the album, now is definitely the time to check it out."
NATE DORWARD - PARISTRANSATLANTIC 2005
"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 wasted - it 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 the 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?"
JOHN EYLES - ALL ABOUT JAZZ 2005
"Stevens' influence on a whole generation of free improvisers (not just percussionists) extended way beyond his beloved London, and yet much of Paul Wilson's monumental Stevens discography remains to be rediscovered, hence the importance of this reissue. Stevens' mastery is evident throughout the seven tracks on this disc,and his dulcet tones are also to be heard in several brief illuminating yet down to earth explanations of his methodology. The music is tight, athletic and positively fizzes with the energy Stevens loved so much in free jazz (Beresford is on the money when he namechecks Sunny Murray) but never descends into raucous blowout. The interplay between the musicians, notably on the hitherto unavailable Peripheral Vision, which divides the quartet into two interactive duos, is simply extraordinary."
DAN WARBURTON - THE WIRE 2005
"Here's an extremely significant reissue from a label whose catalogue is full of important historical documents. Communication often seems telepathic, and Tape Delight presents a nice way into this unit's M.O. Stevens does not so much play as rustle, breathe and clatter, and his 'SME kit' of various percussion instruments is in full effect here, as is his pocket trumpet during several wonderfully droney passages. Smith and Butcher rewrite pages from Bailey's and Parker's respective books, having fully assimilated and transformed their genre-defining rhetoric. There are breathtaking moments of rapport, a two-note motive stated by one and immediately bandied back by the other, or a flowingly sustained Butcher tone complimented by Smith's rhythmically plucked exclamations. Stig presents these devices en mass and on a larger scale. Particularly noteworthy is Butcher's use of multiphonics, a technique he does not merely employ but transcends, sometimes getting four and five notes out in a single controlled utterance and at a prodigious rate.
This reissue adds more of his trademark observations, delivered in a disarmingly frank but lecturing manner. These give the music, some of the last SME recorded before Stevens' death in September of 1994, the philosophical support and clarity with which it was infused from its conception. It is clear that the bitterness Stevens expresses at 'the direction that society's gone in' did not dim the joy he derived from musical interaction. Joy and energy abound throughout the disc, sometimes peppered with moments of absurdity, such as the end of Stig where I'd swear his drum kit falls over. This is wonderful music and a fitting conclusion to a long and innovative legacy."
MARC MEDWIN - DUSTED MAGAZINE 2005
"The disc combines the contents of an album originally released on the Acta imprint presenting two concert performances from '94, with a short snippet from a studio date recorded the previous year with flautist Neil Metcalfe as fourth member of the ensemble. These addendum pieces, further divisible into a string of brief component collages, are sandwiched by a trio of equally revealing spoken word segments. Conveyed in a measured Cockney drawl, Stevens' musings on collective improvisation as an extension of and response to everyday mental wiring toward kinesics, are both calming and affirming in their clarity. They're also a direct corollary to his playing, which always seemed to sustain an earthy integrity in its subversion of conventional idiomatic forms and careful cognizance of group dynamics.
Stig takes shape over twenty-five plus minutes. Saxophonist John Butcher traffics in his customary puckered reed flutters and ethereal overtones, the sounds of avian chirrups aped precisely by his ceiling-register reed whistles. Stevens' presides over a modest kit of snares and cymbals. Roger Smith tugs and scrapes at the strings and body of his Spanish guitar, scaring up brittle needlepoint patterns that are frequently as percussive as those fashioned by the drummer. The three press forward, beating a sedulous path without the need for premeditated compass checks or reconnoitred itineraries. Stevens' mini-trumpet makes a welcome appearance at various intersections, voicing clarion tones that braid with Butcher's limpid soprano in a brocade that is vaguely Eastern in texture and thread count.
The middle foursome of tracks cover more truncated tracts of ground and illustrate the trio's acumen at editing their interplay into consequently economical morsels. On So This is Official Stevens' clatter and Smith's scuttling combines in a porous crosshatch of widely-spaced cues for Butcher's tenor to perforate and embroider. Uneasy Options starts off subdued, building speed on sustained spectral skirls from tenor and trumpet bracketed by pliant string snaps and the dull patter of key pads and brushes. Even at just over an hour in duration the disc provokes the natural inclination to entreat: 'please sir, may I have some more?'"
DEREK TAYLOR - BAGATELLEN 2005
"This is a late version of the SME. So late, in fact, that John Stevens was nearing the end of his own days, with mere months left to pass. John's music, personality and attitudinal influence remain strong, at least amongst those who experienced his storm of sticks first hand. For those who missed that Stevens live presence, this collection succeeds in harnessing the excitement of the SME's flashfire improvisation.
All three players are heard equally, and forcefully. The lengthy Stig is a striking opener, and the album's best piece. The trio head for an angular confrontation with both space and pausing, making repeated sweeping motions and shifting their portable plates of sound, grinding and swaying like a stressed bridge. Tiny statements are made with bold strikes, detailed yet full of repressed aggression. All three players are expert at containing their potential explosiveness, cutting back from excess, but maintaining a terse, self-limited intensity. Stevens, Smith and John Butcher all have a penchant for metallic, harsh sounds, punishing their skins, strings and lips with impeccable control. Occasionally, Stevens picks up his pocket trumpet and squeals high notes in sympathy with Butcher. The result is always varied, full of passion and sonic diversity. The music is tensed, like long strips of metal being bent to their limit. Texture is paramount, and this album must surely represent some of the SME's best recorded work, in technical terms as well as artistic."
MARTIN LONGLEY - JAZZ REVIEW 2005
"This particular incarnation of SME allows John Stevens' concepts to gradually ferment and expand until each separate sound - even the single parts of his drum kit - becomes a nestling, an offspring of undefined fantasies which, coming to grips with a well discernible enthusiastic quest for self-government, shows this music as a continuous metaphor of social unrestricted behaviour. Butcher's enormous talent shines throughout: one can already value his unbelievable timbral transfigurations among the deepest innovations in the recent history of the saxophone; Smith looks happier when his guitar sounds more like an eastern percussion instrument than a regular six-stringed extension: in this sense, his interplay with Stevens' morsels of changing frameworks reaches several intense varieties of articulation."
MASSIMO RICCI - TOUCHING EXTREMES 2005
"Best described as a clattering, spluttering fugue, Stig seems to have a certain circularity to it, though you couldn't actually say it repeats itself - more that it occupies and remains within a specific zone shaped by the various dyads and triads that emerge. Butcher is particularly strong and when he can be heard Smith's contributions are strange and fascinating, especially his Flamenco strumming on Stig. The studio pieces are fine if too short and Stevens' comments define his approach with typical articulacy and political savvy. As for the Red Rose material it is highly focused, at times witty and always personal. With Stevens' music, you couldn't help but get a sense of the man - warm, passionate and one hundred percent in the moment. Good record."
DUNCAN HEINING - JAZZWISE 2005
"Recorded in the last year of Stevens's life, these are vintage pieces. They come from three sources: a long live piece from Conway Hall, named Stig after an African drummer John admired and had befriended; four pieces from a date at the Red Rose; and two studio recordings made for the BBC Radio 3 program Impressions, with Neil Metcalfe added on flute. These last pieces are unusual in that Stevens did discuss material in advance of playing, particularly on Peripheral Vision, which he suggests as an analogy to the kind of peripheral hearing or 'aural vision' that seemed to him an ideal activity during improvisation; 'more like a discipline than a composition ... really demanding, really hard work'. John can be heard discussing these ideas in interview with presenter Brian Morton. All but these final cuts were previously available on an Acta CD. A decade on, these seem as fresh and subversive as ever. There would be memorials in plenty, but this album stands as a living monument to a remarkable career cut off just when it seemed to be moving in new directions."
RICHARD COOK & BRIAN MORTON - The Penguin Guide to JAZZ RECORDINGS, 9th edition 2008
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