Monday, January 02, 2006

The New Cool

John Stevens Quartet: ‘New Cool’ Emanem 4117
Byron Wallen: trumpet & flugelhorn; Ed Jones: soprano & tenor saxophones; Gary Crosby: double bass; John Stevens drum set rec. August 5th 1992
Here’s a very welcome reissue of a magnificent outdoors concert held at the 1992 Outside In Festival in Crawley, south of London. Jazz / Free Improv drumming godhead John Stevens was in his pomp at this gig, proudly sitting at the back of the tent but very much ‘out front’, driving his talented young lions to great heights of impassioned and intelligent playing, introducing his new group and the glorious ‘freebop rhythmelodics’ that was their stock-in-trade, to the true believers.
I’ll admit, in a moment of pure self-indulgence, that I was there, a gob-smacked twenty-something standing in awe of the great drummer, opening my young ears to the wonderful world of British improvised music and its’ cast of colourful characters and mavericks. John Stevens was a one-off, uncompromising in his music-making ideals, a sometimes difficult individual by several accounts, but ultimately a musician whose buoyant and irrepressible desire to enter the music and its making, yielded many varied and rich musical expressions. Strange to look back and realize that my first and only witnessing of Stevens’ Freebop quintet was, for him, a gig towards the end of a sadly foreshortened career. Stevens died suddenly in 1994, leaving a legacy of intensive experiment, education and inspiration behind.
The John Stevens Quartet marked a departure of sorts for the drummer, with a move back to the music that was knocking him out in the late fifties and early sixties from a number of pivotal and undeniable sources: Ornette Coleman’s early quartet albums, the mid-sixties modal melancholy of John Coltrane ( in this particular case, Lonnie’s Lament provides the inspiration) and the direct contact with the expatriate South African Blue Notes, of whom the late saxophonist Dudu Pukwana was a dominant and much-loved influence.
‘Do Be Up’ is a track that pretty much sums up the musical mindset of Stevens’ band. I mean, why would you bother doing it if your life didn’t depend on it? If you didn’t love peeling back the moment and squeezing out the very marrow of existence? This music is clearly made with joy, and that’s what it clearly expresses, too. Check the sleeve photo of Stevens’ gleeful grin (or is it a jazzman’s so-sweet-it-hurts grimace?) as he eggs the lads on. The Freebop that they play looks simultaneously backwards and forwards, so there’s something here for jazz aficionados who sit on either side of the modernist fence. Byron Wallen and Ed Jones dive in head first with energetic gusto and positively blaze with great warmth and joy throughout the eighty minute set. Gary Crosby’s bass lines trawl the halls of the old masters and remind you that jazz used to be music you could dance to. Stevens seems to lap it all up and spit it back out at us eager listeners, with a diamond geezer’s rough’n’ready sparring that starts with a shove and ends with a lung-busting bear hug. ‘The New Cool’ is great music made by a great band for us to enjoy over and over again.
We can acknowledge, with some gratitude, the dedicated sequence of Stevens reissues (mainly in the form of his evolving collective The Spontaneous Music Ensemble) that Emanem label head Martin Davidson has steadily put back into circulation over the past decade. The New Cool adds one of the last chapters to this vital musician’s tale. Go ahead John Stevens.

Matt Krieg


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