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Spontaneous Music Ensemble: Frameworks

John Eyles By

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Increasingly, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble recordings released on Emanem (which now number ten CDs, not including Spontaneous Music Orchestra releases) resemble the pieces of a large and intricate jigsaw puzzle. The recordings span some twenty-eight years, at least twenty-five recording occasions ("sessions not being the appropriate word) and numerous line-ups—John Stevens being the only ever-present participant.

Despite this proliferation, each new release brings fresh insights into this vital and pioneering group. This CD adds three more key pieces to the jigsaw, its tracks dating from 1968, 1971 and 1973. The first two tracks are from the (relatively undocumented) period in the late '60s and early 70s, when vocals were an important component of SME. They feature some of the most beautiful music released by SME.

The frameworks of the album title refer to various concepts, with names such as "dot piece, and "phrase piece developed by John Stevens to help players into the relatively new format of free group improvising.

The opener, "Familie Sequence, employs a line-up that, including vocalist Norma Winstone, has not been previously heard on disc. With three wind instruments in addition to vocals, the line-up is perfect to employ two of Stevens' frameworks—the sustained piece (where each musician holds notes for as long as comfortable) and the click piece (where each note must be as short as possible.) After an introductory theme apparently influenced by Japanese court music, "Familie Sequence includes several of each framework plus freely improvised sections. This provides a structure that is more formal than usual for SME. Winstone and Kenny Wheeler are just as much jazz musicians as free improvisers, while Paul Rutherford is mainly an improviser. The structure facilitates group playing that makes such distinctions irrelevant.

Julie Tippetts was a member of SME for much of 1971, recording the out-of-print Birds of a Feather and 1.2.Albert Ayler with this line-up. "Quartet Sequence is a stunning track, characterized by interplay between all four players. Across its thirty minutes, there is great variety—from a highly complex but powerful rhythmic section through a sparse, mournfully atmospheric section in which Stevens plays glockenspiel and gong, to a closing click piece.

Shortly after Tippetts left, SME became the duo of Stevens and Watts. Their track here, "Flower, opens with some formal exchanges that are tightly controlled by another of Stevens' frameworks whereby two players could not play at the same time. The result consists of intermittent notes, immediately echoed by the other player, in an effect similar to a click piece. Slowly the music becomes less restrained and towards the end there are some freer exchanges. However, the overall feeling is of players inhibited by the framework rather than liberated by it. Fascinating listening, though, and also a signpost to places that improvised music has revisited in recent years.

One day, maybe far off, there will be a definitive edition of all the SME's music in chronological order. Until that happy day comes, enjoy the jigsaw!


Track Listing: Familie Sequence; Quartet Sequence; Flower.

Personnel: John Stevens: percussion, voice (2); Trevor Watts: bass clarinet (1), soprano saxophone (3); Norma Winstone: voice (1); Kenny Wheeler: flugelhorn (1); Paul Rutherford: trombone (1); Julie Tippetts: voice (2); Ron Herman: double bass (2).

Title: Frameworks | Year Released: 2007 | Record Label: Emanem


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