John Stevens Works

S.M.E. Big Band & Quintet

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This British drummer, composer, and bandleader recorded these works -- one long piece for a big band, "Let's Sing for Him (A March for Albert Ayler)," and three quintet works: "Bass Is," "Coleman," and "The Bird" -- between 1971 and 1975. The players included Kenny Wheeler (in both settings), Stevens himself on drums (one of four on the big band selection), Trevor Watts, Keith and Julie Tippetts, Maggie Nichols, Karl Jenkins, Norma Winstone, Laurie Allen, John Marshall, Jeff Clyne, and many others. What Stephens accomplished -- and no one on the Yankee side of the Atlantic knew about -- was to literally reapproach jazz, especially the vanguard, from the context of a musical formalism that might include it in its canon. His large-palette harmonic stretches encompassed room for modal variation as well as intervallic architecture that made room for soloists coming undone. In "Let's Sing for Him," the tempo is a march for a full ten minutes before the improv takes over, yet even here Keith Tippett keeps the traces of the melody wafting through the group dynamics, and they shift and change before the theme restates itself at the dramatic conclusion. In the other works, particularly "Ornette," Kenny Wheeler and Trevor Watts assume positions of musical transcendence, moving back and forth from Ornette's harmonic conceptions to those basic notions found in the blues he heard as a young man in Texas, and then allow for the rhythmic extensions of postmodern jazz that Clyne and Stephens imbue them with as Ray Warleigh floats above it all, superimposing a contrapuntal melodic figure that knots it all together. This is an amazing record, full of surprise and freshness even some 30 years after the original recordings were made. There is dignity and humility in this music, which helps to add to its timelessness. And the playing, by all members, is nothing less that chock-full of soul and abandon.

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