Spontaneous Music Ensemble: Challenge (Emanem)
Having heard a smattering of their recordings, I’m finally getting around to listening to Spontaneous Music Ensemble a bit more carefully. I figured starting at the beginning is probably a sound move. Challenge, recorded in March 1966, is a fascinating album as it captures SME in its formative stages. In fact, had this been a blindfold test I may not have been able to pin point it.
This incarnation of SME features Kenny Wheeler (trpt) Paul Rutherford (trb) Trevor Watts (as/ss) John Stevens (d) and Bruce Cale and Jeff Clyne (splitting the bass duties).
There are moments that hint at the freer approach that was to come (the collective playing on “End to a Beginning”) but for me the music still fits comfortably into the “Free Jazz” mode with composed pieces by Watts, Rutherford and Stevens, soloists with accompaniment, some collective improvising and a rhythm section swinging - nothing particularly unconventional for the time. And that’s not a criticism, the music remains engaging throughout and I feel they create a solid ensemble sound. It’s thoughtful and dynamic music.
“E.D’s Message” opens the album and it doesn’t hold back with plenty of high-energy output from Trevor Watts - perhaps the boldest solo voice on the album, although Rutherford has some nice moments too such as on “After Listening.” The rhythm section comfortably moves between time and a more textural approach. At times things get pretty busy but Stevens sounds assured throughout and is a very responsive accompanist. There are a few nice arco spots from Cale too. It’s funny how something pricks up your ears. For me, it was Stevens’ cymbal work on “Travelling Together” - a whispering shimmer that moves to a bell pattern just as the piece seemly comes to an end before the drum solo takes flight. Wheeler still seems to be finding his feet in this setting and is somewhat more tentative than the others with maybe just the occasional hint at his mature style. He gets a bit of room to move on “After Listening,” which features solos from the each of the horns. A standout from this track is the superb accompaniment of Stevens and Cale. They manage to lock in with each soloist, creating music informed by the soloist rather than relying on rote accompaniment.
There is something familiar about some of the pieces and I struggled to put my finger on what it was. As I continued to listen throughout the week I was reminded, on more than one occasion, of the Bobby Bradford/John Carter Quartet. I guess there are some similarities…. bass and drums with horns (in this case three rather than two) and a post-Ornette vibe that is present at times - but I’m still not sure that’s what it is. [Side Note: I’m not overly familiar with the Bradford/Carter group, eventually I might get to a more in depth listen to them as well.]
For the final track on the disc, Chris Cambridge (b) and Evan Parker (ss) join John Stevens and Trevor Watts. Recorded in April, 1967, “Distant Little Soul,” is moving towards what I hear in my mind’s ear when I think of SME - exploratory (rather than experimental) group improvisation at the quieter end of the spectrum.
So far, this is the earliest recording of Parker’s I have heard and the distinctive voice he developed is still in its infancy. It’s fascinating hearing players early in their career (Bird with Jay McShann, Lee Konitz with Claude Thornhill etc.) so for fans of Evan Parker this track is worth the price of admission. Withdrawn contains some Parker from around the same time… I’ll be getting to that album next.