Monday, April 10, 2017

Spontaneous Music Ensemble: Withdrawal

Spontaneous Music Ensemble: Withdrawal
Kenny Wheeler (trp/flugel) Paul Rutherford (trb) Trevor Watts (as/oboe/flute/voice) Evan Parker (ss/ts) Derek Bailey (g) Barry Guy (b/p) John Stevens (d) and pretty much everyone plays percussion. Recorded in September 1966 and March 1967.

Oh, what a year does. Compared to Challenge, this album is more in line with the music I associate with Spontaneous Music Ensemble. For my first run through I didn’t read the liner notes, which is a pretty common approach for me when listening to an album for the first time. However, in this case it was encouraged by a power cut that had me don the headphones and listen along with the glow of my computer screen (until it dawned on me the reason it was so dark was that the curtains were closed).

Emanem John Stevens
The first four tracks were recorded as the soundtrack for a film from which this album draws its name. The music moves slowly with arco bass underpinning the (mostly) sustained sounds and flurries from the horns. The flurries build and the drums become more present as the overall sound becomes far denser. Kenny Wheeler sounds more confident than on the group’s previous outing, although I’m not really hearing things in terms of soloists and accompanists but rather listening to the overall group sound (which is quite distinctive and cohesive). The opening of “Part 1C” sees the horns and drums ramp things up and the arco bass (which sounds great) emerges as the dynamics drop (was it there all along?) and the horns trade phrases and lock in with held notes.

“Part 2” opens with very high arco and a dialogue between Wheeler and Watts (on alto, up to this point he had mostly been on oboe). When the drone returns to the low register the rest of the horns enter while remaining quite sparse in their approach. Eventually the drums are added, though just momentarily, before the dialogue between Wheeler and Watts returns although with the ever-present drone of bass. Throughout the proceedings it is interesting to hear Parker taking such a back seat, with his contributions not nearly as prominent as the other horns (especially Wheeler and Watts) and a nice reminder that artists rarely, if ever, hit the scene fully formed. The arco bass, and to a lesser extent the glockenspiel, provide continuity throughout the work and while the bass may be somewhat repetitive, I feel that it worked and I didn’t tire of it.

Two questions remain: 1) would I have guessed it was soundtrack music had I not read the back cover? And 2) has anyone seen the film? I wouldn’t mind seeing it.

Next up are the three movements that comprise the “Withdrawal” suite. Straight away there are a couple of noticeable differences. First, Barry Guy is no longer only droning on bass and second is the addition of guitarist Derek Baily. My ears readjust and I realize that the trumpet is now muted and the glockenspiel (or are they vibes? …. I think the latter - probably played by Parker and/or Watts as I’m not hearing much/anything from them) has a more active roll as do the drums (“Sequence 1” ends with a drum solo). All of these factors contribute to creating a very different texture than was present on the soundtrack recordings.

The texture continues to shift on “Sequence 2” with Watts opening on flute, Stevens focuses on the toms and Guy at the piano (combining strumming with more conventional playing). The brass enter along with some very tasty (and rather quiet) guitar from Bailey. Stevens shifts focus to the cymbals as Watts begins singing into his flute and Guy moves onto the bass with an approach that is similar to the soundtrack recordings.

“Sequence 3” keeps the energy levels higher, although I’m not feeling as if people are overly playing. Steven’s is busy at the drums and his playing over the arco bass brought to mind Haden and Higgins on “Lonely Women” (although completely different!) as the horns play hits together. In contrast to the first two “Sequences” this piece is much shorter and I feel ends before it really has had all it can say but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The final four tracks that make up the suite “Seeing Sounds & Hearing Colours,” might be my favourite of album. The group moves together as one and the pieces unfold naturally at a nice pace. For me, one of the strengths of this suite conciseness of the movements - between 4-7 mins each - enough time to let things develop without dragging. What exactly is composed and what is improvised? It’s hard to tell really, but I like the ambiguity (apparently each piece is based around a particular texture).

Emanem has put together a nice package with some background notes, full instrumentation listing and photos from the soundtrack recording session some live concert shots.

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