Saturday, 19 September 2015

"John Stevens' Away/Somewhere In Between/Mazin Ennit" by JOHN STEVENS’ AWAY [feat JOHN MARTYN and TERRI QUAYE] (2015 Beat Goes On 2CD Set – Andrew Thompson Remasters) - A Review by Mark Barry...

"...Mazin Ennit..."

Free-form Jazz is hard to take at the best of times and pushing out two albums on the largely Prog Rock ‘Vertigo’ label in the middle and end of 1976 practically guarantees both of those records instant obscurity. And that’s what happened. Checking back on my old Phonogram release supplements for accurate release dates for this review – I notice that neither of the first two albums even managed a cassette or cartridge release and were deleted in a matter of months.

But over the years the English drummer and former bandleader with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble has come back into vogue. On the first two records in particular - you can sense who was influencing him at the time (Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers and Curtis Mayfield) and how they lent a tangible Funky Soulfulness to the album’s free-form lengthy instrumentals – especially tracks like “Anni” and “Spirit Of Peace”. Bung in some rare UK singles – one of which features the genius talent of John Martyn (a man who loved to improvise his Folk-Rock in the live environment) – and I might almost ‘like’ these expertly played but essentially wild musical noodles. Here are the not-so free form details...

UK released 25 September 2015 (5 October 2015 in the USA) – “John Stevens’ Away/Somewhere In Between/Mazin Ennit” by JOHN STEVENS’ AWAY on Beat Goes On BGOCD 1198 (Barcode 5017261211989) offers fans 3 full albums onto 2CDs and four UK 7” single-sides as Bonus Tracks. It plays out as follows:

Disc 1 (59:57 minutes):
1. It Will Never Be The Same
2. Tumble
3. Anni
4. C. Hear Taylor
5. What’s That?
Tracks 1 to 5 are the self-titled debut album for “John Stevens’ Away” – released June 1976 in the UK on Vertigo 6360 131. The band was: John Stevens on Drums, Peter Cowling on Electric Bass, Steve Hayton on Electric Guitar and Trevor Watts on Alto Saxophone.

6. Can’t Explain
7. Follow Me
8. Chick Boom
Tracks 6 to 8 are Side 1 of their 2nd album “Somewhere In Between” – released October 1976 in the UK on Vertigo 6360 135

Disc 2 (78:50 minutes):
1. Spirit Of Peace (Tribute To Elvin Jones)
2. Now
Tracks 1 and 2 are Side 2 of their 2nd album “Somewhere In Between” – released October 1976 in the UK on Vertigo 6360 135. The band was: John Stevens on Drums, Nick Stephens on Electric Bass, Ron Herman on Acoustic Bass, Robert Calvert on Soprano & tenor Saxophones, David Cole on Electric Guitar (Breno T’Fordo did Percussion on “Now”).

3. Away
4. Sunshine!! Sunshine
5. Mazin Ennit
6. Whoops A Daisy
7. Touch Of The Old
8. Still Here
9. Light Relief
10. God Bless
11. Temple Music
Tracks 3 to 11 are their 3rd and final album “Mazin Ennit” – released May 1977 in the UK on Vertigo 6360 141. All songs on the three LPs are John Stevens originals. The band was the same line up as “Somewhere In Between”

12. Anni Part I
13. Anni Part II – A&B-sides of a June 1976 UK 7” single on Vertigo 6059 140
14. Can’t Explain (Part 1)
15. Can’t Explain (Part 2) – A&B-sides of an October 1976 UK 7” single on Vertigo 6059 154

There’s an outer card slipcase that lends these BGO releases a visual classiness, a substantial 22-page booklet with liner notes by noted writer and genre-expert CHARLES WARING (principal Jazz columnist with the MOJO Magazine) along with artwork, production credits, photos of the band etc. Long-time Audio Engineer ANDREW THOMPSON has carried out the 2015 transfers (first time to CD for all three albums) and the sound quality is amazing – beautifully clear and reflecting the professional production values of the original producers - John Stevens and Terry Yason. There are quiet passages (the opening section of “Tumble”) and wild drum-flourishes (centre of “C. Hear Taylor”) and both offer gorgeous Audio results.

It opens with the twelve-minute Buddy Rich drums and cymbals feel of “It Will Never be The Same” where Hayton and Watts do a Funky shuffle on Guitar and Saxophone respectively. “Tumble” opens with the band settling quietly before they go into a mad Jazz riff that goes on for eight minutes and I suspect is going to be hard work even for the most enthusiastic free former. Far better is the drum solo vehicle of “C. Hear Taylor” where Stevens goes all John Bonham on his kit for five minutes. Undoubtedly the best track on here is near ten-minutes of “Anni” which opens with a wicked guitar solo that settles into a Soulful Funky Jazz groove (very nice) - while the album ends of the Guitar/Sax driver of “What’s That?”

Like they suddenly discovered Jeff Beck’s “Blow By Blow” – the opening “Can’t Explain” feels far funkier than anything on the rather ramshackle debut. Equally good is the slinky and marching-into-war sinister groove of “Follow Me” – a crawling guitar riff ominously plays in tandem with a funereal Black Sabbath drone on bass and drums - later into guitar and sax solos – its fabulous stuff. After all that doomy darkness - “Chick Boom” lightens up proceedings considerably with a Jazz Fusion piece that again feels like Jeff Beck and Jan Hammer having a blast.

As if the Away band had been listening to the Danny Thompson’s Double Bass work on John Martyn’s “Solid Air” from 1973 – the 18:32 minutes of “Spirit Of Peace” is a magnificent slice of Double Bass Jazz Funk. Anchored by Stevens’ Cymbals and Drums, Ron Herman’s Double Bass and a repeated saxophone coda by Robert Calvert – the build up to the David Cole’s guitar soloing doesn’t feel forced – but instead feels like really great musicians finally being given the canvas to hang their individual talents on. This brilliant piece is surely worth the price of admission alone and “Spirit Of Peace” easily has the most amazing Audio for both discs. The album ends on a Funk ditty “Now” which again feels like John Martyn meets The Mahavishnu Orchestra meets Billy Cobham.

The Soulful Fusion style on “Somewhere In Between” continues on the final offering “Mazin Ennit” (a British slang pun on ‘amazing ain’t it’). At a frankly stick-thin 3:16 minutes - “Away” almost sounds like a useable 7” single (Heaven’s forbid) - while “Sunshine!! Sunshine” utilizes that Double Bass again to great effect sounding not unlike Guitar Prog. “Mazin Ennit” is a Fusion piece that feels discordant in the worst possible Jazz-noodling way. Sweeter is the lonesome prettiness of “Still Here” where it feels like Guitarist David Cole is channelling a jagged John Williams by way of Django Reinhardt on this almost entirely Acoustic instrumental. But the album’s centrepiece is “God Bless” – 13:43 minutes of flicking Guitar, Soulful Sax and Funky Fusion.

The four BONUS TRACKS are an absolute blast – the first two immeasurably improved by the Funky Soulful presence of JOHN MARTYN on Lead Vocals accompanied by his echoplex Guitar (very cool stuff and rare). But UK Jazz Funkers will flip for the vocalized versions of “Can’t Explain”. Part 1 opens with Robin Trower-like guitar circa his late 70ts “In City Dreams” and “Caravan To Midnight” Funky Rock phase. “...Can’t explain the way I feel...” British Female Jazz Singer and Pianist TERRI QUAYE sings on Part 1 continued in full Funky mode for Part 2 (she related to both Caleb Quaye of Hookfoot and the Elton John Band as well as Finlay Quaye of “Maverick A Strike” album fame). Part 2 goes into fabulous vocal passages as the driving rhythm moves her...

John Stevens’ Away did little to trouble the charts at the time and given the difficulty of some of the music – it’s hardly surprising. But this is a smart and worthy release by BGO especially as all three albums are first time on CD.

Parts of the first and third platters are well worth revisiting – but that 2nd album may indeed be a bit of a Rock Fusion masterpiece. Well done to all involved...

This review and hundreds more like it are part of my SOUNDS GOOD Music Books Series. 
Click the following link to view/buy on Amazon...

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