This is a late version of the SME. So late, in fact, that John Stevens was nearing the the end of his own days, with mere months left to pass. A few hours after I first aired this disk, Annie Whitehead was dedicating a number to his memory at the Lichfield Jazz Festival. Just an example of how 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 the Stevens live presence, this collection succeeds in harnessing the excitement of the SME's flashfire improvisation.
Most of the pieces are live, with two brief studio cuts finishing off the set. There are also four snippets of Stevens speaking, attempting to explain the mysteries of instant composition. It's pleasing to hear a flurry of music (flautist Neil Metcalfe doesn't appear on the live material) interspersed with the frank statements of Stevens.
In his original liner notes from 1995 Steve Beresford remembers how guitarist Roger Smith would often have a tendency to move away from microphones "as if the were out to get him...". Here all three players are heard equally, and forcefully.
The lengthy "Stig" was recorded during the third London Musicians' Collective festival at Conway Hall in 1994, and is dedicated to a wayward drummer who John met in the Gambia. It's 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 1995