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John Stevens Quartet - New Cool

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Artist: John Stevens Quartet

Album: New Cool

Label: Emanem

Review date: Sep. 7, 2005

The second Stevens reissue dropped by Emanem this summer (the first being the Spontaneous Music Ensembles's A New Distance) is in many ways even more revelatory than the first. It focuses on drummer John Stevens’ ability to “blow” quasi-trad jazz with the best of ’em, proving himself to be both a perceptive listener and an incisive leader in a fresh context. Recorded at the Crawley Jazz Festival in 1992, Stevens heads up a pianoless quartet featuring Byron Wallen on trumpet and flugelhorn, saxophonist Ed Jones and bassist Gary Crosby. The configuration invokes comparisons with Ornette Coleman’s Atlantic period, but the music assimilates and transcends Coleman, Coltrane, the late Dudu Pukwana and the increasingly referential history of jazz itself.

Steve Beresford’s liners to the original issue compare Stevens to 1930s drummer and big band leader Chick Webb, a point of reference as accurate as it is insightful. Webb continually demonstrated an impeccable sense of tempo and rhythmic placement, and Stevens follows suit on New Cool’s opening track, a previously unreleased version of “Dudu’s Gone” that actually opened the set. It is fascinating to hear one of the pillars of free improvisation swing, which he does with taste and energy throughout the disc. “Do Be Up,” to site only one example, drives fairly hard, the hard-bopish head vying for prominence with the strangely craggy call-and-response atomism of the instrumental interplay.

Yet, it wouldn’t be a Stevens gig without some of his spontaneous timbral invention, the beautiful brushwork on the opening of “2 Free 1” and the bristlingly transparent bass-and-drums explorations of “Your Life” being so familiar but always welcome. On the latter, what sounds like a teachable moment finds Stevens shocking Crosby out of temporary inertia with a few cymbal tricks.

Wallen and Jones are superb foils for Stevens and Crosby, Wallen coming from a more stereotypically bebop perspective – cool, sweet but firm like late 1940s Miles – and Jones often down in the gutbucket, his playing shot through with blues and soul.

This is a gig that gathers momentum as it goes, and by the closing version of “Dudu” the band is red-hot. Obviously dedicated to the late South-African saxophonist, the head encapsulates all the folkish fun of a Brotherhood of Breath or Bluenotes track. Now that the rhythmic complexities of “2 Be 1” have been surmounted and the players put through their paces, the group rips into it with gusto and vengeance, Stevens punctuating every phrase with bombs, flams and the occasional vocal exclamation. The coda shows Wallen and Jones at their collective best, Wallen fluttering effortlessly around Jones’ earthy scronk. The juxtaposition is remarkably effective, rounding off another important and immensely satisfying reissue.

By Marc Medwin

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