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Thursday, June 22, 2017

8: John Stevens and Spontaneous Music (1977-78)

  Jump to Musical Analysis:

     After the end of the 1976 tour with Pierre Moelen's Gong, Allan Holdsworth settled back into adhoc jazz sessions and dates in London with his regular "chaps", such as pianists Pat Smythe and Gordon Beck. During this period drummer Bill Bruford (King Crimson, Yes) saw one of Allan's performances, and engaged Holdsworth to set aside some dates for recording guitar tracks on Bruford's new solo album. However, before the highly-structured Feels Good to Me sessions would begin, in May of 1977 Allan found himself recording mostly non-structured pieces with free jazz (free improvisation) drummer John Stevens.

SME at Olympic Sound Studios, 18 February 1968.
L to R:
Dave Holland (bass), John Stevens (drums),
Evan Parker (soprano saxophone),
Kenny Wheeler (trumpet & flugelhorn),
Derek Bailey (electric guitar).
Photo © John Kilby
(reproduced from Karyobin - Chronoscope CPE2001-2)
      John Stevens was one of the main progenitors of the European free improvisation genre, in which every member of the band improvised at the same time, with equal weight and importance given to every instrumentalist. Additionally, a general tendency towards "non-idiomatic" playing was encouraged, which generally meant departing from metered rhythms and diatonic harmonic material. Stevens' "Spontaneous Music Ensemble" solidified (perhaps not the most apt word there) in the latter part of the 1960s with such free improv luminaries as reedist Evan Parker and guitarist Derek Bailey among its ranks (at right).

     Allan's first exposure to "spontaneous music" was probably his (unrecorded) sessions with Jamie Muir's "Sunship", five years back in 1972 (Jamie Muir would later join graduates of the SME in the Music Improvisation Company). However, Allan's exploration of this kind of spontaneous composition continued well throughout his career (as found in the various "zones", HoBoLeMa, and Chad Wackerman's Dreams, Nightmares and Improvisations).

     The first recorded instances of Allan playing free improv are found on a few John Stevens-led piano and guitar quartet albums - not actually labeled with the "Spontaneous Music Ensemble" moniker on the cover, but essentially an SME project. The tracks often seem to be based on very broad rhythmic or melodic shapes (or were possibly edited to be that way), and usually lead to some very dense/inscrutable ensemble interactions. The history of the releases ended up becoming a sore point with Allan in the future, however.

     "What we did was, we went into the studio and recorded a completely spontaneous record with Ron Matthewson, Jeff Young and myself. And because it was all "spontaneous music" we all got together at the end and decided which tracks, which parts of those spontaneous pieces were useless - because it was a Spontaneous Music record. So that was fine and was ‘Touching On'. I don't particularly like it, but that's what it was, that's what happened. But then John Stevens went on to license all the other crap, all the outtakes…nobody saw any money for it. Not that it would have mattered, because if he'd asked me I would have said no, because they were outtakes. To me that's what outtakes mean - not useable."  (40)

Musical Analysis:
     Despite Allan's later misgivings about these session releases, he recorded or performed with Stevens on several occasions between 1977 and 1979. In general, these sessions somewhat weave stylistically between post-Coltrane free jazz and European free improv, with pianists Jeff Young and Gordon Beck pushing towards more traditional harmony structures.

     The most recent of the four Stevens albums is Propensity, this time without a keyboardist. Allan notably here also plays a 12-string acoustic for half of this release, and delivers a wealth of leads on this instrument (last heard on Soft Machine's Bundles ("Gone Sailing")). Out of all four of these releases, I personally enjoyed Propensity the most, since it seems to play to all of the strengths of free jazz without compromise or self-consciousness (although Touching On also features some really cooking boilermakers). However, harmonically, Propensity is mostly thornier than the other sessions, and may be difficult listening for those not accustomed to "free" music.

      From a stylistic viewpoint, Allan often plays some very "outside" lines on these sessions (as is typical of the free-jazz genre), and pretty much avoids any tremolo bar articulation. His tone stays mostly in "clean jazz" mode, but a few solos here and there have some more bite. The tracks also offer a healthy serving of Allan's guitar comping style, which probably hadn't been featured this much since the 'Igginbottom record of 1969. Come to think of it, much of his soloing here is kind of a more mature version of his frenetic 'Igginbottom soloing style, as opposed to the more "lyrical" playing he had just employed with Gong (and would soon use in Bill Bruford's Feels Good To Me project).

    In terms of Allan's discography, these four John Stevens albums are probably the most challenging of all of his projects for most fans, and are probably best listened to in short, spread out sittings. As Allan attested above, Re-Touch and Conversation Piece are virtually unauthorized bootlegs, and probably (make that definitely) could have used some editing.

Note: The below breakdowns only include tracks in which Holdsworth participated.

Touching On
May 19, 1977

Allan Holdsworth: Guitar          
John Stevens: Drums
Jeff Young: Piano          
Ron Mathewson: Acoustic bass

     Allan names this album as the "official" album, whereas Re-Touch was assembled from "outtakes". Re-Touch has the recording date as the 18th of May, but it's probable that the title track fragment with Mathewson ("Re-Touch") was from this session.
Trk Title Dur Breakdown
1 Touching On 21:26      Free improv leads to a mid-tempo walking bass groove. The tempo varies a few times from a cooking uptempo swing to more ballad-like rhythms.

0:00: Bass solo, leading to subtle guitar swells and isolated pulses.
1:10: Cymbals and piano enter, guitar adds relaxed ornaments in dialogue with piano and bass (quartet free improv).
2:45: Bass establishes a tremolo pedal tone, picked up by piano and developed into a harmony.
3:50: Ballad-like free improv develops into mid-tempo walking bass line swing with bebop-ish guitar solo (piano drops out).
6:19: Piano enters with solo as guitar (mostly) drops out.
8:15: Guitar tentatively re-enters with chromatic ornaments (becoming more tonal).
8:57: Tonal piano accents support a brief guitar solo.
9:50: Vigorous walking bass and drums duet.
10:47: Tremolo piano accents and fiery guitar re-enter, as quartet ramps up energy.
12:01: Guitar drops out, leaving piano in foreground lead, ending in slowing accents.
13:53: Guitar re-enters with soft lines over pulsing piano accents. A livelier tempo eventually resumes as the guitar solo develops.
16:40: Guitar drops out as piano develops tremolo figures into arpeggios and intermittent walking bass. Energy increases.
18:15: Guitar re-enters with subtle ornaments and develops over an uptempo piano-driven pedal vamp. 
19:06: Piano begins a descending rhythmic figure, picked up by bass, developing into lower textures as guitar drops out. 
19:50: Bass and drum groove duet, leading to a drum solo.
2 Home 14:15      This is the only track credited solely to John Stevens (as opposed to all four band members). A bass cadenza is followed by a somewhat Morricone-esque western motif, followed by a middle section driven by a dramatic piano theme. The western motif is reprised at the end.

0:00: Slow bass melody expands to a solo, joined by subtle cymbal/brushes.
1:28: Guitar and piano interject a soft, hypnotic motif.
3:16: Piano and guitar begin tentative dialogue as bass settles down and drops out. The piano harmony becomes a somewhat hopeful jazzy ballad theme.
6:00: Bass becomes more apparent as cheerful ballad continues, driven by piano chords and guitar ornaments. Piano develops into more florid playing.
7:13: Held cadence harmony in piano, then return to main ballad theme. Bass briefly introduces a rhythmic motif, followed by another held harmony cadence, etc.
9:41: Bass takes a more melodic role as theme develops.
10:30: Final held pedal section, becoming more energetic.
12:00: Pedal harmony begins to resolve. Guitar employs volume swells in some ornamental passages. Bass harmonics.
13:26: Piano and guitar reprise hypnotic motif as bass briefly solos.
3 Finally 1:36      This is a brief snippet of a more "traditional" blowing sequence featuring Allan's guitar solo. Sadly very short.

Fade in to a heavy-toned guitar solo over comping piano and walking bass with drum swing beat. Faded out.

May 18, 1977

Allan Holdsworth: Guitar
John Stevens: Drums
Jeff Young: Electric/acoustic piano          
Barry Guy: Acoustic bass ("No Fear")
Ron Mathewson: Acoustic bass ("Re-Touch")

     This session has Barry Guy on bass for the first long track. The second, shorter track, with Ron Mathewson on bass, is probably from the later Touching On session.
Trk Title Dur Breakdown
1 No Fear 36:52      A syncopated "head" rhythm frames a long free improvisation and slow ballad structures. Barry Guy plays bass on this track.

0:00: Accented "head" groove based on traded riffs between guitar/keys and bass.
0:43: Allan begins clean comping under keys solo as modal groove continues.
2:08: Allan's guitar solo as keys comp, quickly moving into extended harmonic areas, returning to head.
4:00: Barry Guy's vigorous free bass over frenetic drums. Patient guitar and later piano (now acoustic) arpeggios join and eventually begin a dialogue.
5:40: Bass begins to calm down, as piano gets livelier, leading to a group free improvisation.
7:11: Chordal guitar accents briefly enter and are passed around by bass and piano, leading to rolling piano figures.
8:52: Minor key ballad feel driven by pulsed piano accents. Piano eventually develops into a two-chord vamp as Allan comps.
10:33: Piano figures develop into a solo as bass and drums continue free texture. Guitar also begins a parallel solo (dialogue).
11:49: Unaccompanied, meditative piano chords, soon joined by subtle guitar ornaments.
12:50: Guitar arpeggios joined by piano single note accents, cymbals, leading to brushes and melancholic chordal guitar figures and a solo.
14:21: Piano gradually re-enters with soft chords. Isolated bass pulses gradually re-enter as guitar solo continues.
16:11: Piano comes to forefront in dialogue with guitar, leading to quartet free improv texture.
17:18: Chordal motif surfaces and is passed around. Piano introduces a major key harmony and bass/drums develop into a stuttering groove. Allan solos over the texture.
19:24: Harmony becomes darker as groove loosens up somewhat. Bass and piano briefly dialogue on a rhythmic figure, quartet resumes free improv.
21:03: (fade out/in edit from original LP flip) Cymbals accompany dialoguing piano and guitar as bass develops a rising motif based on the "head" riff.
22:14: Frenetic drums, bass and piano resume free improv as guitar drops out.
23:43: Bass accents followed by re-entrance of guitar with ostinato figures.
24:40: Cascading guitar resumes as quartet ramps up intensity. Guitar ostinati return, picked up by piano.
26:12: A brief drum pause is followed by a late-Coltrane-ish piano trio texture. A melancholic harmony surfaces in piano over heartbeat-like bass pulses. Bass eventually duets with piano as drums drops out. Bass pulses underline florid piano ornaments, etc.
29:05: Swelling, textural drums re-enter as tempo slows. Piano arpeggios become denser. Drums drops out again and bass contributes ornamental melodic figures.
32:13: Piano introduces a new, somewhat more cheerful, accented figure, and guitar and drums tentatively re-enters. Drums eventually drop out as a dramatic piano harmony develops.
35:01: Drums re-enter with frenetic activity. Piano continues tonal harmony as the rest of the band more or less resists.
36:11: Piano drops out, followed by brief reprise of opening accented jazz groove (Young returns to electric piano).
2 Re-Touch 3:57      Ron Mathewson plays bass on this short and energetic free jazz track.

0:00: Dense free improv over uptempo walking bass and piano accents.
1:15: Guitar drops out giving way to piano solo. Guitar soon rejoins with isolated ornaments.
2:22: Guitar resumes fluid soloing and piano returns to accents. 
3:20: Piano figures develop into rolling low figures as guitar drops out.

Conversation Piece
Nov 15, 1977

Allan Holdsworth: Guitar          
John Stevens: Drums
Gordon Beck: Keyboards (electric/acoustic piano, synth, organ)
Jeff Clyne: Acoustic bass

     The two tracks on this album with Holdsworth on guitar are from a BBC radio session.
Trk Title Dur Breakdown
1 Conversation Piece 1 22:34      This improv is loosely thematically-based around a "mystery" motif, mostly carried on piano/keys.

0:00: Electric piano "mystery" motif leads off a soft, textural sequence.
1:10: Piano enters (shadowing electric piano) and mystery theme is developed under dialoguing melodic ornaments. Pianos begins dominating the melodic line.
4:14: Synth/organ accents begin appearing as improvisation continues ramping up.
5:10: Guitar tone becomes heavier and more aggressive and dialogues with piano.
6:03: Piano takes the foreground with accented figures, supported by bass.
6:44: Jazzy drums and guitar comping/ornaments re-enter. Piano and snare become more frenetic and bass follows suit.
8:28: Brief organ accents lead to (clean) guitar solo.
9:06: Pedal harmony with guitar volume swells, developed by piano into energetic dialoguing, toms.
10:46: Textural sequence lead by melodic bass, rhythmic (bluesy) piano chords, developing into soft, mysterious harmonies. Cymbals and hi-hat imply a slow groove.
13:15: Harmony begins resolving, returns to piano/guitar dialoguing. 
14:05: Bass begins a pedal tone, trying to lead harmony outside. Drums re-establish subtle groove under jazzy piano.
16:15: Piano briefly drops out, letting guitar feature. Pianos re-enter in unison figures.
17:05: Allan switches back to lead tone and follows piano line somewhat before taking off.
18:22: Electric piano chord harmony comes to the foreground as guitar winds down. Cymbals begin fast swing beat, soon picked up by walking bass. Electric piano solos.
20:05: Lead guitar resumes, piano returns with chordal accents, becoming jazzy and exuberant. Guitar drops out. Drums peter out.
21:49: Mystery piano motif reprise.
2 Conversation Piece 2 17:14      Textural free improv with a bluesy vamp groove in the middle section.

0:00: Accented piano kicks off a thorny free improv, with somewhat subdued guitar swells.
0:56: Piano takes the lead solo role as guitar drops out.
1:26: Ominous keyboard motif enters (piano/synth) and is developed. Guitar re-enters with some ornamentation. Improv leads to a held cadence.
2:57: Guitar comes more to the front as piano explores high register ornaments (strings?) and synth-organ lines.
4:37: Bass and drums settle down leaving textural guitar and organ duet. Bass resurfaces with chordal slides. Abstract keyboard ornaments (with delay processing).
6:45: Chordal slides also begin on guitar, leading to pedal tone in bass.
7:37: Organ/synth begins melodic (diatonic) phrasing as drums begin a subtle groove. Guitar begins dialogue with piano and bass.
9:03: Keys introduce a jazzy/blues riff as energy rises. Loose jamming on jazzy pedal.
11:35: Piano drives a cadence harmony. Guitar re-enters with a bit more bite, groove ramps up into a two-chord blues vamp.
13:10: Piano takes foreground as guitar drops out.
14:15: Return to more textural guitar sounds, bass in foreground. Rapid piano lines enter and dialogue with bass.
16:10: Drums resume dense groove and guitar enters rapid dialogue with piano accents, becoming more frenetic. Energy abruptly dissipates.

September 4th & 5th, 1978

Allan Holdsworth: 12-string acoustic guitar/electric guitar, 
John Stevens: Drums
Danny Thompson: Acoustic bass

     This session took place almost immediately after Allan had been dismissed from the high-profile rock band U.K. (along with drummer Bill Bruford). Allan and Bill were still, however, contracted to complete several tour dates through October. In any case, the vibrant, uncompromising nature of these free improvisations may have stemmed from Allan's "liberation" from such a restrictive band situation. This album wasn't mastered until 2009, but it sounds excellent.
Trk Title Dur Breakdown
1 Jools Toon 10:44      This cut is notable in that it has Allan playing a 12-string acoustic guitar, and that it's harmonically free throughout.

0:00: Frenetic drums and bass with 12-string acoustic guitar accents and ornaments. Guitar develops into more vigorous, angular lead lines.
2:15: Chordal accents on guitar, developed (bass and drums continue frenetic dialogue).
3:12: Guitar solo line comes to foreground as bass walks. Guitar returns to chordal comping and drums settle down for a little while.
4:33: Bass comes to the foreground over guitar comping. Guitar introduces melodic arpeggiated figures, a dialogue with bass, chordal accents.
6:25: Guitar begins a melodic solo line over walking bass and extends the harmony  outwards.
8:47: Drum comes to the foreground in snare/tom rolls. Guitar resumes soloing over walking bass/dense drums.
9:51: Guitar introduces ending cadence chord sequence.
2 It Could Have Been Mono 15:48      Allan plays some fiery lead lines on electric guitar over a frenzied free jazz texture. Some sequences tend toward pedal tonalities and one somewhat bluesy moment surfaces near the end.

0:00: Bass introduces a pedal vamp, soon joined by dense drums. Guitar enters with thick chordal accents.
0:32: Bass begins walking, guitar develops into a lead line. Allan's tone becomes more biting as his solo develops.
3:30: Chordal guitar ornaments intermittently appear as bass line varies density.
6:50: Chordal guitar accents lead to pause in energy, bass solo continues.
7:47: Drums resume dense groove as guitar resumes chordal comping. Guitar soon resumes lead line over walking bass groove, punctuated by accented chords. Guitar solo becomes fiery with cascading figures.
11:00: Accented figures in guitar lead to snare and toms drum solo.
11:51: Bass re-enters with pedal bass vamp and develops into a solo line. Guitar adds sparse ornaments/swells. Bass solo becomes somewhat bluesy and guitar briefly joins melodic line.
14:06: Guitar lead tone returns for another solo. Guitar drops out and bass begins aggressive bowing. Final tremolo cadence/rolls/swells.

Propensity can be purchased at the Art of Life website.

Next: Jean-Luc Ponty
Previous Chapter: Gong

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The numbers in parentheses after Allan's quotes above refer to sources listed in the Bibliography
For more detailed information on this chapter, see the Annotated Chronology.

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