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Unpopular Populists

John Stevens

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By John Corbett

Cemeteries are chock-full of great people who never got the recognition they deserved. Just recently, one of my favorite writers, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, jumped from a window to his death with barely a notice (I found out three weeks later). And last year one of the world's most brilliant musicians, British drummer John Stevens, died of a heart attack with nary an obit in the major press. It's not surprising, of course, since neither Deleuze nor Stevens was known to a broad audience. Death notices aren't the place where obscure people get their long-neglected reconsideration. But these disparate figures had something in common that links their proximate passings and makes their loss significant to a wider audience: they were each involved in complex, specialized, resolutely "unpopular" activities--poststructuralist philosophy and free improvisation--but they retained an openness, a sense of humility, and an optimistic obliviousness to the demands of the culture industry that made them, at another level, extremely accessible, human, real. Both Deleuze and Stevens were populist avant-gardists.

Over the course of his 70 years, Gilles Deleuze created a unique body of work, much of it written in conjunction with collaborators like Claire Parnet or Felix Guattari. Such tandem tracts as Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus (both of which bear the suggestive subtitle "Capitalism and Schizophrenia") were conceived and written as duets, ensemble works that forced the individual thinkers to surrender themselves to the process of writing together. On his own, Deleuze wrote some of the most deeply provocative reevaluations of previous philosophers--Nietzsche, Kant, Spinoza, Leibniz, Bergson. But just as radical poststructuralist Michel Foucault insisted that all history should be a history of the present, so were Deleuze's readings of canonical philosophers always grounded in contemporary ideas and practices, making old ideas relevant to the present. "A theory is exactly like a box of tools," Deleuze once insisted. "It must be useful. It must function. And not for itself....It is strange that it was Proust, an author thought to be a pure intellectual, who said it so clearly: treat my book as a pair of glasses directed to the outside; if they don't suit you, find another pair; I leave it to you to find your own instrument."

Though Deleuze was concerned with arcane philosophical issues--such as the relationship between systemic repetition and individual identity--his writing was, in a strange way, as open to the nonphilosopher as to the specialist. For Deleuze's complex, sometimes impenetrable writing merges philosophy with poetic discourse--or, better, it treats philosophy as a form of poetry. To read Deleuze generously, at least for me, has always meant allowing myself not to understand everything in a literal way, but to let the metaphorical and the concrete coexist on equal terms. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari challenge the reader to abandon a central metaphor in Western thought: the tree. In its place they suggest using the model of the "rhizome," a plant, such as grass, that doesn't grow from a point of origin (roots) in logical sequence through a single line of reason (trunk) differentiating into various consequential extremities (branches). Instead rhizome can spread out in unforeseen ways, its end points linking back up with its roots, moving by means of lateral and not strictly linear logic. In fact, it's hard not to reduce things to trees--think of how we have written the story of jazz music, as if it actually proceeded from roots in New Orleans to the trunk in Chicago and New York, out of which many branches grew into different styles. A popular jazz history poster diagrams the music exactly this way, complete with green leaves and bark. But music doesn't strictly work like this. Instead, it's constantly doubling back on itself through stylistic cross-pollination; branches break off, forming alliances with other genres--like a tree that could fuse at will with other trees. Like a rhizome.

The idea is at once high theory and grassroots activism. When illustrating their rhizomatic concept, Deleuze and Guattari use references to popular culture, including the Pink Panther (everything he touches turns pink!), rocker Patti Smith, and the lyrics to the song "Old Man River." Deleuze's is a creative philosophy: simultaneously avant-garde and, in the sense that it resists the elitism and exclusivity of academic philosophy, potentially open to anyone. In the boldest endorsement of his career, Foucault--not known for gratuitous PR--proclaimed: "Perhaps one day, this century will be known as Deleuzian."

John Stevens never had the backing of a heavy hitter like Foucault, but he is widely recognized as one of the original European free improvisers, and his groups were breeding grounds for many sounds and musical ideas that have gone on to have lives of their own. Born in 1940, Stevens was inspired by the wonderful but often unacknowledged British bop and early free-jazz drummer Phil Seaman. Until the mid-60s Stevens worked in straight-ahead jazz groups, but in '65 he formed the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, one of the very first free improvising ensembles. SME provided a wide range of musicians--including saxophonists Evan Parker and Trevor Watts, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, bassist Dave Holland, guitarist Derek Bailey, and trombonist Paul Rutherford--with a charmed circle for exploration and invention as the new approach to music-making was testing its wings. SME remained an effective vehicle for Stevens's music for the next three decades.

Since Stevens died last September, there's been a virtual avalanche of releases, many of which chronicle his work with SME. Summer 1967, released on the reactivated Emanem label, contains the earliest music yet released of sax innovator Evan Parker; most of the record consists of duets between Parker (still sounding like himself but very youthful and not completely formed) and Stevens. Two long cuts capture their first encounter with German bassist Peter Kowald. Karyobin, a larger group record from '68 released on the Chronoscope label, is one of the most important documents of early improvised music, maintaining a lithe jazz feel (courtesy Holland and Wheeler), but introducing Bailey's extreme guitar and a more developed Parker into the SME mix. (Stevens and Parker recorded again as a duo twice for the Ogun label; the more recent Corner to Corner is especially worth seeking out.) The record Face to Face (Emanem)--recorded in 1973, when SME was a duo of Stevens and saxist Trevor Watts--contains a series of extremely intense dialogues, sometimes featuring Stevens on cornet. And A New Distance (Acta), the final SME record, taped in London just months before Stevens's death, finds the ensemble made up of Stevens, guitarist Roger Smith (one of the few free improvisers to use a nylon-string guitar), and saxophonist John Butcher. This version of the group plays music at once supercharged and intricately laced, resolutely abstract and absolutely concrete.

While Stevens clearly learned from Elvin Jones's strong sense of polyrhythm and oblique relation to pulse, he always had a light touch, perhaps more along the lines of Tony Williams. When playing with SME, he often used a sized-down kit--just a snare, a little cymbal, and not much else--which seemed to emphasize his austerity and resourcefulness. Given to spaces of silence, his small group interactions were something very special. Perhaps the nicest of these on record is One Time (Incus), a 1992 trio date with Bailey and Kent Carter, who played bass with SME for a period during the 70s. But oddly enough, while Stevens was one of the most ruthlessly uncliched musicians of his generation, he kept an ongoing interest in the most cliche-ridden style the music produced--jazz-rock fusion--and in fact recorded frequently in this mode. A record by his group Away, Mutual Benefit (Konnex), includes twin electric guitars, electric bass, and a free-blowing horn section, all perched atop his off-kilter free-form funkiness. This That and the Other (Atonal) is a trio disc with Jack Bruce, the bassist from the classic rock band Cream, and legendary blues and prog-rock saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith; with the latter Stevens made a strong record of duets, Bird in Widnes (Konnex). And Stevens made a couple of recordings with guitar-geek god Allan Holdsworth, including Retouch & Quartet (Konnex), which are also the only place you'll find the serious-minded bassist Barry Guy playing in a fusion band.

Stevens's interest in pop styles and forms didn't derive from a misguided desire to speak to "the people" in their own tongue, however. Increasingly, the electric jazz of Ornette Coleman--who clearly left his mark on the Brit (Stevens called his own approach to fusion "rhythmelodic," a nod to Coleman's notion of "harmolodics")--has seemed aimed at this kind of vanguard-pop crossover. But Stevens was compelled by the music itself, drawn by Coleman's initial avant-funk gems with the group Prime Time, Miles Davis's experimental rock, and Captain Beefheart's rhythmically unbeatable Magic Bands.

Like Deleuze's writings, Stevens's music is the product of a populist approach that doesn't pander. Whether making unconventional music or writing poetic oppositions to ontology, the first order of business for Stevens and Deleuze was not making sure people liked them, for "being liked" is based on "being heard" or "being seen." The work would have to physically reach the reader, listener, or viewer--thus, a whole network of distribution, controlled or influenced by various interested parties, must be in place--and it must reach people with time, energy, and impetus to give the challenging material the attention it demands. To be taken seriously is a rare commodity--some say a luxury--in our drive-through era.

To place all eggs in the basket of "being liked" is to invest in a dicey omelette. But how does one make meaningful work without becoming snooty and removed from everyday life? "The hope is to suggest an alternative," wrote Stevens in his notes to Mutual Benefit. "The Establishment is now getting to a point of totalitarianism. I'm trying to address the machine that's killing people off by dealing with a music that is by its nature humanitarian, informative, collective, specific....The music is a stimulus."

Music as stimulus. Philosophy as toolbox. Both are based on a functional form of thinking. There's no proselytizing prophet showing the one-and-only way, but artists offering another set of spectacles with which to view the world. If you don't like 'em, you're encouraged to try another pair. Can this kind of vanguard populism withstand our most resolutely anti-intellectual era? Fortunately, Deleuze and Stevens left us more than mere headstones.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/ Christian Him.

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