Contrasting Faces of Spontaneous Music Ensemble

John Eyles By

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For years, the Emanem label has had so many releases by Spontaneous Music Ensemble in its catalogue that it has become the de facto guardian of the SME legacy, the keeper of the flame. Although there have been excellent SME recordings on other labels—Karyobin (Island, 1968; Chronoscope, 1993) and Spontaneous Music Ensemble (Marmalade, 1969; Polydor, 1972) spring to mind—no other label's SME releases match the breadth, depth, richness and variety of those on Emanem.

As well as seeking out unreleased SME recordings and getting them fit for release, Emanem proprietor Martin Davidson is continually finding ways to improve those that have already been released by Emanem. For example, in 2007, two single CD volumes of Quintessence, consisting of recordings from 1973 and 1974, were replaced by a double CD of the same recordings; in the process, the music was programmed in a different order, one which showed it off far better. Now, Emanem has issued two CDs by SME, both of which have previously been released by the label in some form...

Spontaneous Music Ensemble




This is a straightforward reissue of Challenge which was previously issued on CD by Emanem back in 2001, housed in a plastic "jewel case," most of its content dating back to a 1966 vinyl LP release on the Eyemark label. For some time that 2001 issue has been out of stock, so it is good to have it back again, now clad in one of the high quality card sleeves that Emanem (and Psi) have used since 2009. Other than that change and some slight revisions to the sleeve notes by Martin Davidson, there are no alterations; the music is programmed in the same order as before with no detectable changes.

That is excellent news for lovers of improvised music. This album is a key document in the history of improv, as it caught SME on the cusp of the transition from free jazz to free improvisation. At the time, SME centred around the threesome of drummer John Stevens, trombonist Paul Rutherford and saxophonist Trevor Watts who had first met in1959 at the RAF School of Music in Uxbridge, London, when they were doing their National Service. If anyone ever makes a movie about the development of improv, that meeting should be its opening scene; individually and collectively those three players were to have a profound effect on the music for decades after. Just as historic, the last track on Challenge, "Distant Little Soul," is the earliest recording of saxophonist Evan Parker—aged just 23 at the time.

Spontaneous Music Ensemble

New Surfacing



New Surfacing contrasts starkly with Challenge in several ways; it is not a reissue of a previous Emanem release but a brand new issue which includes material previously available on other releases. Its first two tracks "Newcastle A" and "Newcastle B" (which justify the "New" part of the CD title) were previously included on Trio and Triangle (Emanem, 2008) alongside some tracks by the ten-member Spontaneous Music Orchestra. For that CD, they were sourced from a distorted cassette tape and cleaned up. Although the results were acceptable, there is no doubt that the versions here—sourced from the original tape of the concert—display a quantum leap in sound quality.

The music of this incarnation of SME differs radically from that of its 60's ancestor, mainly because of the shift of instrumentation from wind instruments to strings. With the benefit of hindsight, that change can be seen as highly significant and influential. That influence is evident in the impressive array of improvised strings albums—by the likes of Arc, Barrel, Stellari String Quartet, Trio of Uncertainty, Charlotte Hug & Fred Lonberg-Holm—that Emanem has built up in recent years. This version of SME demonstrated that unamplified strings can produce improvised music as dramatic, intense and exciting as any, a point reinforced by the third track here, "Complete Surfaces" (aha, the "Surfacing" part of the title) from 1992 at the end of this trio's existence. Originally released on Konnex in a truncated version, this studio-recorded piece is over half an hour of fluid, fluent three-way interaction which makes gripping listening.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: E. D.'s Message; 2. B. Ornette; Club 66; Day of Reckoning; End of a Beginning; Travelling Together; Little Red Head; After Listening; End of a Beginning; Distant Little Soul.

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

New Surfacing

Tracks: Newcastle 78A; Newcastle 78B; Complete Surfaces.

Personnel: John Stevens: percussion, cornet, mini-trumpet, voice; Nigel Coombes: violin; Roger Smith: guitar.

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