How Ya Doin? is not only the title of the album but also the title of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) contribution to this anthology of free jazz and improvised music in the English Midlands from 1969-77. The performance qualifies because apart from being given at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, before its elevation to university status, John Stevens and Trevor Watts along with Derek Bailey (on an earlier Nondo release) were generous enough to allow their local performances to be heard alongside lesser known musicians with links to the Midlands area. In fact many of those musicians also performed and, indeed, found themselves from time to time based outside of the area - in London, Southampton, York, Belfast, Colchester and elsewhere - though that does not detract from the basic premise. In short, the better known players provided a point of comparison with the work of lesser known provincial players working in a more or less similar musical context ie the jazz avant-garde of the time. But it is worth pointing out that there were others who were active around this period, but who remained unrecorded such as bassists Nick Stephens and drummer Pete Pipkin. LSP aka Mr Panton’s Music came out of a previous ensemble from 1968 - Birmingham New Music Ensemble aka New Music Concert Orchestra - which also involved Birmingham born Jan Steele and Phil Buckle who have a long collaborative association. Anthony Pither, born in Somerset, studied music at Birmingham University, and returned as Music Organiser at Aston University Centre for the Arts in the 1970s becoming involved in various One Music Ensemble projects until 1980. Wolverhampton born Roy Ashbury was active around the area during the 1970s before moving south and full time study at Essex University. Ascension Seven aka Dave Wallace and Nigel Harvey were active on the Stoke-on-Trent improvised music scene during the 1970s.
The title track uses one of John’s minimalist formulae, not only as a launch pad for improvisation, but also for sustaining it, producing constrained and controlled (disciplined) performances within the context of his spontaneous music project in contrast to the less restrained model of American free-jazz as exemplified here by Spittin’ Down Brass performed by LSP. Fall Guy and Aesir integrate thematic ideas with improvisational development, with Jan Steele and Phil Buckle exercising musical control and discipline over improvisational freedom to produce music of a more thoughtful and atmospheric quality. This World imposes a compositional structure which has the effect of constraining the freer improvisatory sections as they emerge from and merge with written sections. Free Fall Guy provides a contrast to the seriousness of the above by using humour as a controlling element to the not so much free as chaotic content. This is difficult to convey in sound only - apart from the audience laughter at the end - but became a feature of my brief involvement with non-idiomatic improvisation. The original vinyl release ended there. But for this re-release we have added extra tracks from the Roy Ashbury Band and Ascension Seven, previously released on Nondo DPEP001 and Nondo DPLP006 - which will not be re-issued. These additions give a slightly wider perspective on what was happening in the Midlands during this period. This Side could have used one of John’s formulae to start it up with sustained notes/sounds and which continue as a controlling element even when the horns try and break free. Gruncher Fried Rice No. 4 and Gruncher Fried Rice No. 5, however, seem to arrive closest to the SME exemplar, creating a sustained dialogue between the two freely improvising performers rather than working out individual lines simultaneously or alternating between leading and subordinate roles.
Reviewers Peter Riley (1) and Barry McRae (2) found it a ‘strange’ compilation, but without explanation as to why they thought so. Charles Fox (3), on the other hand, simply explained its concept, aired a couple of examples and left his Jazz Today listeners to make up their own minds, while opining that free improvisation within a composed framework can be ‘very effective‘. The point, made by Fred Middleton in his original liner notes that ‘SME here represents a point of reference/comparison with what follows’ was ignored, and therefore the opportunity to compare the various approaches to freedom. While it may be difficult to develop this kind of thesis within the confines of a magazine review slot, it seems all too easy to trade the impartiality of considered analysis, or at least unbiased description, for the far inferior standard of partial opinion. Middleton’s liner note descriptions were generally impartial, but Riley and McRae did something of a hatchet job on the release which did not, however, affect its saleability. Reviews of the additional tracks in their original context were slightly less harsh. Riley (4) wanted a different recording of Roy Ashbury (which would not have fitted the remit of this re-release), but nevertheless found the one chosen ‘interesting and rather strange’ (again). Charles Fox (5) played what he considered a fair sample, pointing out its tendency to mark time rather than engage in forward development. McRae (6) suggested the same of Ascension Seven while Riley found them by turn ‘delightful‘ (1) ‘a sparse…spread-out texture…[and] a linear and intensifying/developing course’(7). After thirty years since the original release it’s timely to ask if Middleton’s optimistic view that ‘the dissimilarity of these musicians…promises much for the future’ has proved so. Alas, non of them have made any impact upon the course of the music or secured high profile careers/reputations, even those who continued to work in music. Perhaps McRae (8) is correct, it is not such minnows that influence the music, no matter how extensive their ponds may be. But this was never the purpose either of this release or the NONDO label. It has achieved its purpose to document activity rather than promote reputations or exert influence. Ultimately it’s rewarding to have been close to the birth of an artistic movement rather than following in its wake. DP
1-Coda 172 1980/2-JJ May 1979/3-BBC Radio 3 15/5/1979/4-Musics No 6 1976/ 5-BBC Radio 3 7/10/1975/6-JJ August 1981/7-Start No. 3 1979/8-JJ March 1980.
released January 1, 2013
1 Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME): How Ya Doin? (Stevens) (10:45) Trevor Watts: soprano saxophone John Stevens:
cornet Recorded: Wolverhampton Polytechnic 4 april 1973 Engineer: Oliver Senior
2 LSP: Spittin’ Down Brass (Panton) (6:42) David Panton: alto saxophone Graham Lynock: tenor saxophone Noël Warr: tenor saxophone Jef Daw: guitar Nick Solomon: cello Phil Trickett: drums Recorded: Zella Studios, Birmingham 22 July 1969 Engineer : Johnny Haynes
3 Jan Steele solo saxophone: Fall Guy (Steele) (4:42) Recorded: Lyons Concert Hall York University 19 June 1975 Engineer : Andrew Bentley
4 Jan Steele/Phil Buckle Duo: Aesir (Steele) (11:33) Jan Steele: alto saxophone Phil Buckle: drums, percussion Recorded: Lyons Concert Hall York University 15 August 1975 Engineer: Dave Malham
5 One Music Ensemble: This World (Panton) (8:33) David Panton: alto saxophone Anthony Pither: piano Recorded: Aston University Centre for the Arts 15 March 1977 Engineer: Cliff Dix
6 One Music Ensemble: Free Fall Guy (Panton) (0:51) David Panton - alto saxophone, percussion Recording: as per item 5.
7 Roy Ashbury Band: This Side (Ashbury) (5:58) Roy Ashbury: flute, percussion Dave Bullock: alto clarinet Graham Ashcroft: alto saxophone Chris Vine: electric guitar Oliver Senior: amplified acoustic guitar Mike Moore: cello Recorded: Wolverhampton Polytechnic 1973 Engineer: Oliver Senior
8 Ascension Seven: Gruncher Fried Rice No 4 (Harvey) (9:52)
9 Ascension Seven: Gruncher Fried Rice No 5 (Harvey) (7:43) Dave Wallace: electric piano, violin, flutes Nigel Harvey: drums, guitar, flutes Recorded: Stoke-on-Trent 1976