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?

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