In September 1966, with only one quartet album so far to their name, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble recorded “Withdrawal” for the first time as a structured improvisation to soundtrack a never-to-be-completed film, whose protagonist was a junky with mental health issues.
Their continuous performance was edited into a two-part, half-hour suite, here titled “Withdrawal Soundtrack” in order to differentiate it from the same material, revisited six months later as “Withdrawal Sequence”, alongside a new suite by SME co-founder John Stevens, “Seeing Sounds & Hearing Colours”, for a proposed album. Neither soundtrack nor album would be released until 1997, when Emanem first issued this compilation.
“Withdrawal Soundtrack” is dominated by three elements: Kenny Wheeler’s ravishing, emotive trumpet playing; a counterpoint glockenspiel leitmotif; and a slithery bass drone that threads throughout the entire session, maintaining its focused tension like the string on a diabolo.
If Wheeler, who apparently voiced concern that he might not be a natural improvisor, is a standout contributor to the soundtrack, then Evan Parker, a new recruit at the time, is practically self-effacing on that session, and plays only glockenspiel and hand-held percussion on the lion’s share of the re-recorded “Withdrawal Sequence”. Derek Bailey, on amplified guitar on the album session only, is on fine form, but mostly, sadly, buried in the mix.
No matter, as this is very much a collective music, and strikingly egoless by comparison with either the then-new or orthodox jazz of the time.
The personalities involved, now all well established as significant originators of the music, had yet to settle into their individual maturities. Watts, for example, favours oboe and occasional flute over the alto or soprano sax he would later come to focus on almost exclusively, always seeking an edge of differentiation. And it’s actually the collective’s incisive textural playing and restraint, trombonist Rutherford’s perhaps most of all, that makes the session so vibrant.
Stevens has not yet adopted the small kit drum setup that would later define his third-person style, so—notwithstanding his bustling, polyrhythmic kit drumming on “Withdrawal Sequence 1” (alongside a rare outing for Watts on vibraphone), and the odd prod via nettlesome snare or surging bass drumming elsewhere—he leads mostly by example and sketchy, freestyle illustration.
Watts plays some beautiful flute on “Withdrawal Sequence 2,” a piece of heightened drama with piano ivory and harp strikes (played by Guy – another rarity of orchestration) glinting against percussion, some deliciously sensitive work by Bailey, and Wheeler sounding blearily simpatico with Guy’s return to slithery bowed bass.
“Seeing Sounds & Hearing Colours – Movement 2” is another standout cut in a similar vein: a short, slippery improvisation on C, on which Guy’s resinous bowed bass laps fur-tongued against fluttery and fluting reeds, restless hand percussion rustling and huffing brass.
The most overtly energised playing, where combined forces strain for some sort of call-and-response catharsis, is to be heard as the Withdrawal cycles evolve. Seeing Sounds & Hearing Colours is an exploration of textures and timbres apparently inspired by Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, and focused even less than the Withdrawal material on either traditional jazz modes or the freeform energy exposition of much latter-day improvisation.
This is music from a time when improvisation was still fresh to the world, kaleidoscopic, protean and inclusive, with little or no ideational baggage. And it’s probably easier for todays audience, with its vantage of retrospect, to enjoy it on a purely musical level. Absolutely essential.
Kenny Wheeler trumpet, flugelhorn, percussion; Paul Rutherford trombone, percussion; Trevor Watts oboe, alto saxophone, flute & voice, percussion; Evan Parker soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, percussion; Derek Bailey amplified guitar; Barry Guy double bass, piano; John Stevens drums & cymbals, percussion.
Buy Withdrawal direct from Emanem.