"But we form our own time, with our time and forms, and place the stamp of our face, leaving it in the flow of centuries where it will be recognised." KAZIMIR MALEVICH, 1918.
MAYBE IT'S just one of those apocryphal John Stevens stories, but it persists - the one about Stevens seeing Sunny Murray for the first time. Of course, he loved Sunny's drumming, but he was particularly impressed when, in mid-solo, Sunny fell off his drum seat. That, said John, proved just how relaxed a drummer Murray was. You can hear the results of John's deep listening to 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. There's also a spot, so to speak, in the Red Rose concert where Roger abandons his instrument and rubs his fingers in a tiny pool of Guinness.
In 1977, John and Roger made a SME record, Biosystem, with violinist Nigel Coombes and 'cellist Colin Wood. Somehow not quite capturing their magic, Stevens, Coombes and Smith had to wait until 1992 for another studio recording, when John's son Richie did a fine production job on the session. That turned out to be the last time Coomes played with them. Subsequently John tried out various new combinations, as he had done many times in the past.
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). The occasional playing of pools of Guinness only momentarily fazed him. 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. I found the quote in Redstone Press's Malevich Box, which John owned and treasured.
ACTA have wisely retained the introduction. 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 1994