Artist Info

Spontaneous Music Ensemble

Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) was the brainchild of drummer John Stevens and over the course of its almost 30 year history he was its one constant. Founded in 1965 with saxophonist Trevor Watts, it was one of the very first free jazz improvisatory groups to appear in England. In addition to American musicians pioneering the movement, Stevens had heard and been inspired by the non-idiomatic improvising ensemble AMM and forged a concept midway between the two: music that was freely improvised to a very high and abstract degree but which also retained something of the "jazz sound." One of its main concepts was an extremely open, leaderless aspect where a premium was placed on careful and considered listening on the part of the musicians. Saxophonist Evan Parker observed that Stevens had two basic rules: (1) If you can't hear another musician, you're playing too loud, and (2) if the music you're producing doesn't regularly relate to what you're hearing others create, why be in the group? This led to the development of what would jocularly become known as "insect improv" -- music that tended to be very quiet, very intense, arrhythmic, and by and large atonal. At its best (as on albums such as Karyobin), the performances achieved a telepathic unity and sensitivity that few other freely improvising bands could boast. The personnel of SME varied widely over the years from a duo of Stevens and Watts to a 20-piece orchestra. Its members included a who's who of the British avant-garde, including Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Barry Guy, David Holland, and Julie Tippetts. Several South African expatriates also joined the group on occasion, among them Johnny Dyani and Mongezi Feza, adding an element not normally associated with such a supposedly austere genre. Stevens' premature death in 1994 brought this exciting chapter in the history of improvised music to an unfortunate and early close. In addition to Karyobin, Spontaneous Music Ensemble's work can be heard to excellent advantage on the two volumes Quintessence I & II.
Brian Olewnick, Rovi