The Spontaneous Music Ensemble was one of the first flowerings of a fertile British improvised music scene that would flourish through the ’70s and beyond. The SME was a loose collective centered around drummer John Stevens and, in its first decade, saxophonist Trevor Watts. Stevens was partially inspired by the example set by his contemporaries in AMM, but in forging his own take on improvised music, he deliberately did not go as far as AMM in rejecting his jazz background. SME music was freely improvised, without reference to underlying structures or overt jazz idioms, but the overall sound nevertheless retained a connection to jazz – and to the conventional ways of playing acoustic instruments – that ran counter to AMM’s ideas.
Even so, Stevens was an innovator and a radical in his own right. His ensemble, with its shifting membership and invention of “insect improv” – quiet but paradoxically busy music with a great deal of responsiveness between the players – was massively influential. The group’s first album, Challenge, from 1966, had been unambiguous free jazz, featuring a quintet playing compositions by Stevens, Watts, and trombonist Paul Rutherford. By the time the second album appeared two years later, Stevens had made a breakthrough. Challenge had been rather unexciting and predictable; Karyobin was clearly something new. The music sounds like jazz broken down into the tiniest possible fragments and then stitched back together, all atomized pinpricks driven relentlessly forward by the unceasing creativity of Stevens’ tinkling, sizzling, fluid drumming.
The SME’s membership had changed considerably between the two albums, as it would continue to do with each new record. Only Stevens and trumpet/flugelhorn player Kenny Wheeler returned, making Karyobin the sole SME album from the group’s first decade on which Watts did not appear. The lineup was filled out by saxophonist Evan Parker, guitarist Derek Bailey, and bassist Dave Holland. Though all of these musicians would become well-known names in jazz and free improv, none of them besides Wheeler had had any substantial exposure prior to Karyobin. This was Parker’s first appearance on record, and one of the first for both Bailey and Holland. The quintet formed a continuum in its relationship to jazz, with Stevens in the center. While Parker and Bailey had instincts pushing away from jazz, and would pursue that direction ever further in the next few decades, Wheeler would spend much of his career outside the SME in jazz groups, and in the same year as Karyobin, Holland appeared on two of Miles Davis’ early electric period records. Both Wheeler and Holland would go on to become key members of Anthony Braxton’s ’70s bands, thus bringing their SME background to an avant-jazz context.
It is impossible to hear Karyobin today from the same perspective with which listeners must have approached it in 1968. The influence of this record and these players has just been too pervasive, and this sound, with its pronounced ties to jazz, is today not at the vanguard of “out” music the way it was when it first appeared. Heard for the first time any time after, say, 1971, by which time its aesthetic had thoroughly taken hold, Karyobin couldn’t be too startling or outré, but it retains a freshness and vitality that all too many documents of this era have long ago lost, or never had in the first place.
The emphasis that Stevens placed on listening to – and musically conversing with – other musicians defined the SME and the school of improv it birthed. The music is dense and busy, with a jittery quality that only rarely leaves much space or quiet, but unlike a lot of free jazz from the era, the players weren’t merely soloing wildly atop one another. There’s always a sense that each player is trying to fit into the overall sound, to interweave his own sounds with those of the others. As the first piece starts, Wheeler and Parker solo simultaneously, but their lines aren’t competing or stepping on one another. The horns dance and wind around each other, serpentine and restless, characterized by short, sharp notes and abrupt shifts in pace and style. The two horn soloists, playing with phenomenal intuition and coordination, each fill in spaces left by the other – no easy trick given the density and speed of the playing.
For all its inventiveness and departures from tradition, this is still quite jazzy music. The horns often take the lead role while Stevens, Bailey, and Holland form an unconventional rhythm section. They don’t keep time in the jazz sense, but their interjections are usually in the background, laying a foundation for the horns. Parker and Wheeler seldom lay out to cast a spotlight on that background, though midway through the first piece is a brief and lovely section where they do just that, with Stevens’ tinkly drums a highlight of this comparatively tranquil breather.
The album is in constant motion and upheaval, and though the overall effect is of uniformity, there’s a great deal of variety within its spiky, nervous style. On the fourth track, Wheeler plays a few bars of surprisingly straightforward balladic jazz trumpet, soon answered by Parker’s more atonal squeals on the soprano sax. The fifth track, the longest at nearly 13 minutes, allows for more of a patient pace, with a lengthy introduction in which the musicians play slower than usual, with the horns spitting out long, lazy tones atop Stevens’ stop/start rhythms. Bailey inserts chunks of feedback and low-key melodic plucking. The music keeps building to passages of more frenzied interplay only to fall apart whenever Stevens drops out, encouraging a return to brief silences and the atomization of the ensemble’s individual elements. Only at the very end is the group allowed to really cut loose in a more sustained way, resulting in one of the only times on the record that the quintet unfortunately falls into the paradigm of a chaotic free jazz blowing session.
Much of the rest of the time, the playing is sensitive and reactive, maybe even to a fault. Already it’s possible to hear the ways in which the Stevens “insect improv” aesthetic would lead to dead ends: each musician is so wrapped up in responding quickly to others’ ideas that the music almost inevitably falls into a pattern of rapid exchanges and maximum density. It’s generally not noisy music, but it’s also anything but relaxed: the horns are constantly criss-crossing and conversing, Stevens is a fount of musical ideas behind his kit, and Bailey gives the impression of very meticulously dropping his little gnarled notes into any stray space left unfilled by the others. Only Holland, patiently plucking away at the edges of the sound and generally fulfilling a far more traditional role on his instrument than the others, doesn’t contribute to the sense of constant chatter. When things do calm down slightly, as on parts of the last track, there’s often a tentative quality to the all-too-brief lulls, as though in the absence of a constant stream of sounds to react to, the musicians hesitate over what to do next.
Despite these caveats, Karyobin is not only an important foundational document for British improv – as earthshaking in its way as AMMMusic was – but a fascinating piece of music. The abstracted jazz of this quintet is full of energy, and not in the shallow, play-as-loud-as-possible fashion of so many free jazz saxophonists who learned all the wrong lessons from Albert Ayler. Free improv would sometimes retreat too far in the other direction in the decades to come, becoming insular and inexpressive, but that’s not even remotely a problem here. This is vital music played with a great deal of fire by young musicians still defining and refining their individual musical languages, and finding ingenious ways to make that exploration into a conversation between peers instead of a solitary effort.