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Spontaneous Music Ensemble: Biosystem

John Eyles By

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Spontaneous Music Ensemble: Biosystem Emanem has been the bastion of SME releases for years now; without the label, John Stevens' legacy would be a fading memory, despite his lasting influence on a generation of players. However, this SME release—dating from 1977—appears on Psi rather than Emanem, as it was originally released on Incus (incidentally, making it the first Incus re-release on Psi not to feature Evan Parker).

This recording was a radical departure for SME; it saw the grouping completely move away from horns (Parker, Trevor Watts) to a quieter soundscape that, apart from Stevens occasional interjection on cornet, only featured strings. Apart from two live recordings on Low Profile (on Emanem), this release is the only recording of the foursome including Colin Wood on cello; SME would continue gigging intermittently for years as the threesome of Stevens, Coombes and Smith—occasionally augmented by guest musicians. (And in 1992, SME reintroduced sax, when John Butcher joined. But that is another chapter.)

Although the instrumentation was a radical departure, much of the methodology employed by the foursome retains clear links with previous incarnations of SME. As has been observed by Martin Davidson, this foursome may have contained one too many string instruments, as the sound has an occasional tendency to get cluttered and for there to be a lack of space. However, the key word in that sentence is "occasional. More often, the interactions between the four players produce focused, coherent, telepathic group playing. For a prime example, dip into "Replanted. For over fourteen minutes, it is a sustained exercise in discipline, the concentration of all four players being almost tangible; but the resulting music never sounds strained or forced, rather it flows around between the players with a logic that seems flawless and natural.

For this CD issue, much previously unreleased material has been added to the original LP material, greatly enhancing it. Most impressively, the last three tracks play as one continuous piece, adding some 25 minutes to the original two minutes of "Saved by the Bell. Again, it is the combination of the four players that is remarkable, rather than that of any individual; at times the sounds of the three string players virtually combine into one, with Stevens cymbal-laden playing distinguishable but totally integrated into the whole. Exemplary group improvisation.


Track Listing: Biosystem; Mystery; Replanted; Back to the Beginning for the First Time; Another Beginning; Restored; Saved by the Bell; The Bell and Beyond.

Personnel: John Stevens: percussion, cornet; Nigel Coombes: violin; Roger Smith: guitar; Colin Wood: cello.

Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Psi | Style: Modern Jazz


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