Chemical Chords

John Stevens
Vinyl : 1977

JS, drums; Kenny Wheeler, trumpet and flugelhorn; Ray Warleigh, alto sax; Trevor Watts, alto sax; Jeff Clyne, bass.

Band chemistry: The x factor that’s all too often ignored. It’s where technique and individual ability are less important than that indefinable spark. Groups with amazing chemistry often take it for granted and their leaders assume they can hired more accomplished musicians and achieve the same results. But has that ever proved to be the case?

Rock is littered with examples of bands with great chemistry that splintered into lackluster solo careers. (S’up, Mick, Lou, etc?) In jazz, where bands have less longevity, chemistry is a trickier issue. It’s usually the unspoken reason why certain sessions pop and others fizzle. Leaders like Charles Mingus understood a limited drummer like Danny Richmond served his compositions better than a powerhouse like Elvin Jones. Miles Davis knew Motown bassist Michael Henderson was a tighter fit for his electric music than, say, Ron Carter.

For this one-off session, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble carefully selected a band that had never played together in this configuration. He had links to the various players through his wide-ranging tenure on the English avant jazz scene and some idea of how they might compliment each other. The line-up of Kenny Wheeler and Trevor Watts is pretty all-star but this music doesn’t rest of the laurels of pedigree.

Recorded in 1975, the resulting music is very much invested with the crackle of a controlled reaction. The catalyst is clearly supplied by Ornette Coleman’s musical conception (in keeping with a recent D:O theme), but the quintet takes it in new directions. “Coleman” is a barn-burner: all the horns sound great on their own, and even stronger when playing in jagged unison. Stevens and Jeff Clyne maintain a steady pulse at a breakneck tempo. All in all, a thrilling and successful experiment.

Have you experienced any notable instances of group chemistry? Either the spontaneous chemistry of a pick-up gig, or the seasoned chemistry of a working band?

Discussion4 Comments Category John Stevens Tags , , , ,

4 Responses to Chemical Chords

  1. I worked on a theatre show a few years back, and after opening night I went out with the rest of the musicians to celebrate. Saxophonist Soweto Kinch wrote the music, and he’d come up to Manchester to hear it played out. As it’s my hometown (everyone else was from London) I took them to my local Jazz club for the night. The house band were playing, and it was one of the dullest things I’d heard; they just didn’t want to be there anymore. Soweto had the presence of mind to bring his sax; a few words in the band leader’s ear and he was on stage. My drummer mate was up there like a shot; also the double bassist in our company dived up.
    The dynamic changed instantly! They were into it, the crowd were into it… some of the best playing I’ve ever heard happened that night, even after my mates had sat down. It totally put a rocket up everyone’s arse.
    Bit long winded, but you asked…

  2. Yes! Much obliged, Danny; just what we were wondering about.

  3. What you say about band chemistry is very interesting and true. Overall in my experience I take more to longevity in band experiences…the longer you play together, assuming an initial connection, the better it gets.

    But I have to take exception to one minor point you make….in no way was Dannie Richmond a “limited” drummer, in comparison to Elvin or to anyone! Different, yes. Limited? Hell, no! Find a different word!

  4. I saw Dannie Richmond play on a couple of occasions and he was one of the greatest Drummers I ever heard. He had everything going. Sound, dynamics, four way. From what I hear John Stevens on that track is shooting for Dannie Richmond.

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