John Stevens: John Stevens’ Away / Somewhere In Between / Mazin Ennit
(Beat Goes On BGOCD 1198)
HEARING the Brentford-born drummer John Stevens and the alto-saxophonist from York, Trevor Watts, playing together in the often wild and vibrant musical stew of the early ’70s, it was as if the ground and air were beautifully coalescing.
They had originally met as national servicemen in RAF bands more than 10 years before, but by 1966 military life was gone and they formed the powerfully original Spontaneous Music Ensemble (SME) and brought a revolutionary approach to British jazz improvisation, playing in an audacious way which was entirely new, even to the most free of jazz ears.
By 1976 Stevens and Watts were embracing even newer challenges. Their quartet Away was seen as a launching into jazz-rock, with a first recorded inclusion of electric instruments, and their debut album recorded live at the Quartier Latin in West Berlin.
Electric bass was played by Peter Cowling of Lincolnshire, the leader of Grimsby-based blues band called The Syndicate, as well as bassist of the prog-rock band Gnidrolog. The US guitarist Steve Hayton was a part of the country-rock band Daddy Long Legs and also a member of Watts’s free jazz formation, Amalgam. So Away was definitely a mongrel band, with all kinds of influences that were far and away from the free improvising of the SME.
The eponymous John Stevens’ Away and its two following albums Somewhere in Between and Mazin Ennit have been rare and precious vinyl treasures on the Vertigo label. So to have them together on a double CD, reissued on the Beat Goes On (BGO) label is a gift from the rampaging past.
As soon as the opener It Will Never Be the Same opens its sonic doors, there is powerful rhythmic uplift from Stevens and Cowlings, with Stevens’ drums a different animal from his much more delicate percussive ways on the smaller drumsets he often used on SME recordings.
Here he digs into the power of his original mentor, the Buxton-born bop virtuoso Phil Seaman and another inspiration, Coltrane’s great drummer Elvin Jones.
As usual, Watts builds melodies and lyricism from his currents of improvisation.
Hayton’s cascading cadences are at the forefront of Tumble, and the eclectic sounds create a potent unity in neighing passages blown by Watts’s alto above Stevens’s crashing skins and the two guitars’ twanging commentary.
Anni begins with a riveting Hayton solo, Watts’s alto bursts with creative breath and new timbral pathways, and Stevens explodes with a five-minute power-house solo on C Hear Taylor. The album closes with What’s That?, a riff-based tune with Watts blowing with a searing South African sound, perhaps influenced by the indomitable Dudu Pukwana.
Somewhere in Between, the second Away album, was recorded in a London studio in June 1976 with a new line-up. With Stevens was acoustic bassist Ron Herman, a SME confrere and two school friends from Sutton Coldfield, guitarist David Cole and electric bassist Nick Stephen. On soprano and tenor saxophones was Robert Calvert.
Cole’s funky guitar starts off Can’t Explain and with the two basses forging a deep, subterranean beat there is a lot more riffing than improvising. Cole takes a whining, bluesy solo on the mournful Follow Me.
Stevens dedicated Spirit of Peace to the great Elvin. It begins with a colloquy between the basses before Stevens enters and Calvert plays a swooping soprano solo. Then it is the phenomenal Stevens drum-talking to Elvin for three minutes before the simple theme comes home with all five musicians uniting.
The same quintet reassembled in October 1976 to cut the last Away album, Mazin Ennit, a rhetorical question easily enough answered in the positive, particularly in Sunshine!! Sunshine, where Cole’s guitar also springs into the sky and all through its very understated English title with a march-tune of resonant turmoil, with Steven’s turning a military drum story to a narrative of percussive love.
A great British drummer, his sounds sparked creative beauty and rapture wherever he played. When he accompanied me reading my poetry, it was if there was a locomotive beside me, a friendly engine of joy helping my words achieve more meaning. When he died in 1994 at only 54 years, he was indeed a musician of jazz life who, as Ellington once coined it, was truly “beyond category.”
His genius is there in Away — still as close as flesh and blood.