Old and new gospel
Among the many projects initiated by the inspirational drummer and educator John Stevens between the creation of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble in 1966 and his early death in 1994, the most unexpected was a septet called Splinters, convened in 1972 to bring together musicians spanning the bebop and avant-garde sectors. From the older generation came the tenorist Tubby Hayes, the drummer Phil Seaman and the pianist Stan Tracey. Representing the newer thing were Stevens himself and the altoist Trevor Watts, his SME co-founder. Straddling the eras were the trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and the bassist Jeff Clyne, both of whom had played with the SME but were equally comfortable with the music of Hayes, Seaman and Tracey.
I remember the excitement of their debut at the 100 Club in May that year, and the realisation that it was working much better than might have been imagined, thanks to the commitment of all the musicians involved. About 80 minutes of music from that night was released a dozen years ago by Reel Records on a CD titled Split the Difference, long unavailable. Now the whole 100 minutes is to be found on a handsome three-CD package issued by the Jazz in Britain label, along with just over an hour from a gig by the same line-up at the Grass Roots club in Stockwell, South London four months later, both performances taped by Watts on a cassette machine with a couple of decent microphones.
Hayes, the giant of British modern jazz, stood at the pinnacle of a virtuosic tradition, and had only recently recovered from serious illness, but he was able to throw himself into the collaboration with great generosity, finding a place for himself in a music that operated according to very different parameters. For Tracey, who came from the language of Monk rather than that of Bud Powell, assimilation was also possible. And Stevens’ boundless admiration for the greatness of Seaman helped to ensure that the two of them found a common vernacular founded in a kind of swing falling somewhere between Max Roach and Ed Blackwell.
For Watts and Wheeler, this kind of time-based free improvisation, rooted in the discoveries of Ornette Coleman, was home territory, and both play with great distinction, but the success of the project was really ensured by the presence of Clyne, a bassist with all the necessary instincts and virtues honed to the highest degree. He had made his reputation alongside Hayes and Ronnie Scott in the Jazz Couriers, but listening to him with this band, you can easily believe that he could have depped for Charlie Haden with Coleman at the Five Spot in 1959 or for Reggie Workman or Jimmy Garrison with John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard a couple of years later without any appreciable loss of quality. He was a remarkable musician and his death in 2009, aged 72, left a big hole.
Although full of vigour and substance, the music Splinters played at the 100 Club gig sounds almost tentative by comparison with the Grass Roots set. By the time of the later gig they seem to have relaxed into the format, producing the kind of uninhibited, exuberant shout-up which characterised that era, and which had its roots in the influence of Chris McGregor’s Blue Notes as well as of Coleman’s Free Jazz and Coltrane’s Ascension. Hayes plays a superlative solo, Clyne is phenomenal, and the wildly exciting stuff Seaman and Stevens get up to towards the end could give drum battles a good name.
Historically speaking, this is an important release. Seaman died four weeks after the Grass Roots gig, aged 46. Hayes died the following June, aged 38. It’s interesting that these two should have chosen to plunge into an environment offering such a different sort of test. In a lengthy essay contained within the beautifully produced 12″x12″ hardbacked sleeve, Simon Spillett describes the background to the project, sketching in the histories of the Jazz Centre Society, which organised the Monday-night series at the 100 Club, and the Musicians’ Action Group, which ran Grass Roots, and the crosscurrents of the London jazz scene at the time, using material from archive interviews and fresh testimony from Watts, now the only survivor of a fascinating experiment.
* Splinters’ Inclusivity is on the Jazz in Britain label, available as a digital download as well as the three-CD set (www.jazzinbritain.co.uk). The photographs are from the album’s cover, and were taken by Jak Kilby. Clockwise from top left: Phil Seaman, Jeff Clyne, John Stevens, Trevor Watts, Kenny Wheeler and Tubby Hayes. Centre: Stan Tracey.