The late drummer John Stevens was charismatic, at times unpredictable yet played with conviction and enthusiasm through his now historic free jazz/improv band, “Spontaneous Music Ensemble”. The rendition of SME portrayed here, represents the version “that lasted the longest period, whilst probably performing and recording the least”, from the words of Emanem’s Martin Davidson. Here, Stevens performs alongside guitar virtuoso Roger Smith (See AAJ July’99 review), violinist Nigel Coombes and cellist Colin Wood. Low Profile features material recorded live between 1977-1988.
SME was all about improvisation, workmanship and nonconformity. Stevens was somewhat of an iconoclast in the British free-jazz scene and along with Evan Parker, Derek Bailey and Trevor Watts were among the most visible of this historic and genuinely unique movement which thankfully still flourishes. One of the wonders of free-improvised music, (in the proper hands of course...) is that the ideas, sparks of creativity, thematic approaches... ad infinitum, enable the listener to handle the situation on his or her terms. If you polled 100 people for their opinions or thoughts subsequent to hearing music of this ilk, you’re liable to get 100 different answers. Therefore, audience participation whether in a live scenario or sitting in the music room is paramount. On Low Profile, SME show their wares on “The Only Geezer An American Soldier Shot Was Anton Webern”, as Colin Wood, Stevens and Nigel Coombes engage in frolicsome behavior during this live recording at Derby College in 1977. Here, the blend of cello and violin atop Stevens at times playful yet thought provoking drumming and percussion work offer valuable lessons on the virtues of dialogue and conversation through music. Besides the improvisational aspects, the mood-evoking climate is varied while suggesting ephemeral tones or attitudes, which at times are haunting, joyous or stark and dangerous. A possible down side here is John Stevens’ quite amateurish approach to the cornet yet his utilization of extended notes adds a bit to the tonal color, not to mention his drone-like vocalizations. The 3rd piece and title cut, “Low Profile”, is at times anything but.......an oxymoron perhaps? Long time member and brilliant guitarist Roger Smith performs on this piece which was recorded in 1984. Here, despite a few shifts in tempo, the pace is at times manic and hurried. “Kitless With Elbow” was recorded live at a benefit concert in London. The title refers to Stevens’ elbow problem at the time as he did not bring his drum kit and performs solely on the cornet. The liners advise that Stevens eventually did sit behind someone’s full size drum kit; however, the recording was too loud and was omitted from this production.
Low Profile represents previously unissued tracks and provides additional insight into this amazing and groundbreaking band. It may not be their best or most prolific statement but there is a lot be gained from listening to these sessions pulled from the vaults by the ever resourceful Martin Davidson. SME defied the odds and marched full steam ahead for over 20 years as this music sounds remarkably topical and at times serves as a source of amazement. Recommended...* * * 1/2
John Stevens; Percussion, Cornet (2,4) & Voice (2): Nigel Coombes; Violin: Colin Wood; Cello (1-2): Roger Smith; Guitar, Amplified Guitar on track 3: