Spontaneous Music Ensemble,
(Emanem, 2000)

John Stevens is perhaps equally known for his superb and even idiom-creating drumming and his compositions. It's true that these can sometimes have a workshop feel about them, but often their simple ideas work well for musicians in the so-called "European" school of improvised music.

This CD presents, perhaps, the acid test: four large group sessions, and four different pieces. While these minimal instructions can serve as useful jumping-off points for duos and trios, it's not at all self-evident that they can help to organise 20 to 30 musicians (truly, a small orchestra), many of whom may have been, as it were, passing through rather than regular members of the group who fully understood the concepts (if there were any) behind the music.

Of course, the results are quite mixed, and could hardly have been otherwise. Stevens took an enormous risk with this group; already playing a kind of music which few could understand in more intimate settings, the orchestra must have alienated a few more. The music initially sounds directionless, sometimes contentious, sometimes even grating. "In Relationship to Silence" is punctuated by some ear-splitting outbursts from Stevens's horn. Yet there's something there holding this music together and, as so often happens with Stevens's work, you find yourself surprisingly drawn in.

Workshop favourite "Sustained Piece" (in which each note is held for the duration of a breath) appears in two versions, one instrumental and one vocal. The former is beautifully restful and surprisingly consonant, its presumed aim of keeping the music (and the musicians) under tight control wonderfully realised. The vocal version is even more compressed, with the voices sounding big, open vowels. It's tame where the instrumental version is contained, and stands up less well to repeated listens, but it's nice to have.

Another very workshoppy idea is the core of "One-Two," a free improv piece in march time in which players elect to play either one beat or the other. Charmingly, they begin by counting the metre, as if trying to remember something from the distant past of musical experience. This makes for a dramatic opening, but the regular rhythm is rather stridently marked and the piece outstays its welcome.

The title track and the opening "In Relation to Silence" are dominated less by process and more by old-fashioned jamming. Both have top-and-tail structures (one emerging from and returning to vocal noises, the other silence) but the bulk of them comprises instrumental playing. This is swirling, often exciting and always enjoyable stuff -- notwithstanding reservations mentioned above about Stevens's cornet, which was perhaps just too close to the mike -- but the real action seems to happen in the music's liminal phases, as it moves from one state to another. That said, anyone with any taste for the sound of a large group of improvisors making a big sound together will find much to enjoy, especially on "Mouthpiece."

These are all important tracks, certainly from a documentary perspective, and their collection together here is to be applauded. It's only a small shame we don't know the names of the participants, since this is really Stevens's music and it would sound broadly the same whoever they were.

Personal egos are, at least in part, obliterated in favour of the group sound, making this one of the few truly orchestral improv groups to have adopted that nomenclature. Of course the results are mixed -- how could they be otherwise? -- but much of this music is tremendously successful. Emanem are to be congratulated for this continuing commitment to putting and keeping John Stevens's music on the record.

[ by Richard Cochrane ]