A New Distance
Last recordings of the SME
JOHN STEVENS: small drum set & mini-trumpet
JOHN BUTCHER: soprano & tenor saxophones
ROGER SMITH: spanish guitar
NEIL METCALFE: flute (8 & 10 only)
Stevens' mastery is evident throughout 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 but never descends into raucous blowout. The interplay between the musicians is simply extraordinary.
PARIS TRANSATLANTIC - Dan Warburton.
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
28 May 1994 (1-2)
Conway Hall, London
9 January 1994 (3-6)
Red Rose Club, London
20 February 1993 (7-11)
London studio recording
WIRE (1996) - Will Montgomery
A New Distance
SME's Karyobin was recorded 28 years ago this month but despite the group’s longevity there’s woefully little of its music in circulation. A New Distance, a trio set, rectifies this by bringing together two concerts from 1994 — the last the group recorded before the death of its drummer/leader John Stevens. There's one 26 minute piece from that year’s LMC festival and four briefer pieces from an LMC benefit in Finsbury Park's Red Rose club.
Guitarist Roger Smith and saxophonist John Butcher made great collaborators for Stevens (Smith worked with SME over 20-odd years; Butcher was a more recent addition). Each has a powerful individual style, but the ability to speak as part of the collective SME voice. Both mesh very well with the immense restraint and sensitivity of Stevens's drumming.
Stevens sounds at once casual and passionate, a driven knitter of musical strands, the force of his personality impossible to ignore. It’s often quiet music: fleeting, glancing, full of abrupt twists and turns, brimming with incipient silence. But I've listened to it against a sonic backdrop that has at times included major roadworks and sexually active neighbours of the most vocal sort and it's remained a powerful presence. Of the various pieces it is perhaps the long “Stig” (named after a Gambian drummer friend of Stevens) that is the most rewarding. It achieves a hovering focus of intent that is sustained with devastating conviction. An essential document, yes, but, more importantly, wonderful listening too.
Jazz Review (1995) - Martin Longley
A New Distance
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.
All About Jazz - John Eyles
A New Distance
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?
DUSTED - Marc Medwin
A New Distance
Best described in a 1980 lecture by Evan Parker as "atomistic" music, the SME aesthetic is certainly not limited to the detached "serialist" taps, trills and pointalisms of post-Webernian dialogue; in fact, the group vocabulary can shift intergesturally with surprising speed and jaw-dropping drama from sparse interjections to passages of all-encompassing inter-registral drone.
The two-volume "Quintessence", featuring Derek Bailey and Evan Parker in a 1973 SME formation, is a perfect starting point for the uninitiated, not to mention one of the most beautiful improv sets I've heard.
"A New Distance" isn't far behind, due in large part to the multi-timbral saxophone wizardry of John Butcher, who'd joined the group two years earlier, and to Roger Smith's hushed but poignant guitar work. 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.
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.
Keeping Stevens' spoken intro to "Stig" was a wise decision, and 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."
Original Liner Notes - Steve Beresford
A New Distance
"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