For the world of free improvisation, Challenge marks a major milestone. It represents the first recording of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, longtime standard-bearers of British free improv. Parts of this record were briefly released on the Eyemark label (which otherwise specialized in recordings of steam engines and opera spoofs!), but two tunes here never made it onto wax at all. Emanem has collected these pieces for release. One can view Challenge as a launching point for a free-spirited group with a revolving door of personnel, but an ever-expanding sense of musical freedom.
The early SME placed more emphasis on composition than its later counterparts, and that's where a lot of the interest on Challenge lies. For example, consider the Trevor Watts composition "Day of Reckoning." This tune starts with a dyadic juxtaposition of short arranged passages with quick trips into free space. Then a high-stepping military march theme briefly kicks in, and all four members of the group fall into lock-step (irony, anyone?). From there, it's open territory. One by one, each player steps up to solo: Rutherford deliberately starts and stops, pausing carefully between phrases. Drummer John Stevens, a master colorist and percolator, generates propulsive bubbles of sound that envelop the melody instruments without drawing attention to himself. When saxophonist Trevor Watts steps in for his solo, he throws the gates wide open. He screeches, snarls, and squeals, but mostly pursues a highly melodic series of arcs and spirals that evolve over time. After a brief bass solo, the dyadic intro and military theme rear their heads again. "Day of Reckoning" clearly features fixed compositional elements, but it also allows for near-total freedom during the interspersed solos. It's representative of a lot of the tunes on Challenge.
The final tune on Challenge deserves special attention. The previously unreleased "Distant Little Soul," a Stevens quartet composition of 15 minutes' duration, is the only piece featuring the soprano saxophone playing of Evan Parker. Parker is a wonderful foil for master reed player Trevor Watts, and together they break down plenty of barriers, playing with incredible versatility.
Challenge is a must-hear for fans of the SME. To the naive listener, this record offers a cornucopia of sonic exploration. It's not for the weak of heart (or mind), but it's remarkably powerful if you're willing to open your ears (and your mind) to some new sounds. Even though Challenge was recorded 35 years ago, it still sounds just as vibrant and fresh today.
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