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Spontaneous Music Ensemble: Challenge (1966-7)

John Eyles By

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These recordings are of historical importance. More importantly, they are a good listen.

They are the earliest available recordings of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, dating from March 1966 and (one track, previously unissued) April 1967. They were issued briefly on LP in 1966. The recordings capture free improvisation at the point in time when it was diverging from free jazz but when the two were still close enough to be obviously related. Over the next two years, largely because of nightly musical explorations and experiments at the Little Theatre Club in central London, SME's music evolved rapidly. (Compare this release with Karyobin, recorded in 1968, for evidence.)

In 1966, SME were still playing compositions credited to individual members, rather than free improvisations credited to all those involved. The rhythm section was still relatively conventional. John Stevens was still playing a standard drum kit, rather than the small SME kit he would soon adopt. As the 1966 sleeve notes proudly proclaimed of the music, "It swings." This music clearly shows the influence of Americans like Coltane, Coleman and Dolphy. Indeed, the opening pieces (by Watts and Rutherford, respectively), "E.D.'s Message" and "2.B. Ornette," openly acknowledge the influence.

There are also hints of the future, though. On "Little Red Head" and "End of a Beginning" there are early signs of the SME's later, freer music but they still have a clearly agreed structure. And the 1967 track, "Distant Little Soul" sees the debut of Evan Parker, who would play a pivotal role in the development of free improv.

Over the next quarter of a century, SME would radically alter the face of improvised music, making it into something distinct from jazz and into a recognisably European form. This CD marks the start of that process. It makes fascinating listening.

Track Listing: E. D.'s Message; 2. B. Ornette; Club 66; Day of Reckoning; End of a Beginning (previously unissued take); Travelling Together; Litle Red Head; After Listening; End of a Beginning; Distant Little Soul.

Personnel: For tracks 1-9: Kenny Wheeler, flugelhorn (tracks 1-3 & 6-9); Paul Rutherford, trombone; Trevor Watts, alto saxophone (all except 9), soprano saxophone (9 only); Bruce Cale, double bass (2-8); Jeff Clyne, double bass (1 & 9); John Stevens, drums & cymbals (except 7). For track 10: Trevor Watts, piccolo, alto saxophone; Evan Parker, soprano saxophone; Chris Cambridge, double bass; John Stevens, drums & cymbals.

Title: Challenge (1966-7) | Year Released: 2001 | Record Label: Emanem

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