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Soft Machine: Drop (2009)

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Soft Machine: Drop Despite significant ambivalence about Soft Machine around the time of this recording, it was the furthest out that the group ever ventured, and its closest approach to free jazz. It also possessed the freest drummer to ever grace a rock group. Australian Phil Howard was, in fact, free by most jazz standards, but by jettisoning the exceptional Robert Wyatt, the band deserted its last link with songs and humor. Howard was, however, one of the era's truly original and most extraordinary drummers.

Drop, along with Fifth (CBS, 1972)—possesses historical significance beyond its release. It marks a threshold for jazz-rock fusion, bearing greater resemblance to Tony Williams

Tony Williams
Tony Williams
1945 - 1997
drums
' original Lifetime, The Fourth Way, early Weather Report
Weather Report
Weather Report

band/orchestra
, and some of the late-'60s/early-'70s music from Gary Burton
Gary Burton
Gary Burton
b.1943
vibraphone
, John McLaughlin
John McLaughlin
John McLaughlin
b.1942
guitar
and Larry Coryell
Larry Coryell
Larry Coryell
b.1943
guitar
than the music of Mahavishnu Orchestra
Mahavishnu Orchestra
Mahavishnu Orchestra
b.1971
band/orchestra
, Return to Forever
Return to Forever
Return to Forever

band/orchestra
and, indeed, Soft Machine itself after John Marshall
John Marshall
John Marshall
b.1941
trumpet
's recruitment. Rhythmically, it was far freer, representing a brave attempt to fuse electric instrumentation with a more adventurous rhythm section.

Heaven for saxophonist Elton Dean

Elton Dean
Elton Dean
1945 - 2006
saxophone
and Howard, but challenging for keyboardist Mike Ratledge and bassist Hugh Hopper
Hugh Hopper
Hugh Hopper
1945 - 2009
bass, electric
, who were both looking for more compositional variety than Howard's freeform drum style would allow (somewhere between Jack DeJohnette
Jack DeJohnette
Jack DeJohnette
b.1942
drums
, Tony Williams, Robert Wyatt and Milford Graves
Milford Graves
Milford Graves
b.1940
drums
). Interestingly, Howard's approach was anticipated in part by Wyatt's own End of an Ear (CBS, 1970), where he employed a very free but less relentless approach on "Las Vegas Tango."

Howard never takes a break, stops playing or slows down, but adds great flare to Ratledge's "Slightly All the Time" and "Out-Bloody-Rageous" from Third (CBS, 1970)—suites of contrasting musical ideas that, here, represent a steamroller of thoughts and musical fragments. Fifth's opener, "All White," is manic in its intensity, while "As If" contrasts with John Marshall's excellent but very controlled drumming, sounding more vibrant and powerful—almost bursting with energy despite its laidback structure.

The players respond differently to the freedom posed by this line-up. Dean revels in it and has never sounded better. Hopper, feeling redundant in this group, was struggling to work within the instrument's traditional foundational role, despite some admirable playing. This setting allowed him to free up his great melodic approach, taking his signature fuzz tone to extraordinary levels. Ratledge, one of the best improvisers and composers of his generation, stretches out more fully than at any time since the Wyatt-Ayers-Ratledge Soft Machine incarnartion, where he played pop songs with a Cecil Taylor

Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
b.1929
piano
-esque sensibility. What came after was not bad, but reflected a confinement of musical ideas rather than an organic expansion, setting the stage for the repetitiveness of Seven (CBS, 1973).

A fascinating document of one of the best bands in the world in full flight—before the conventions of commerce (Howard was allegedly let go after Soft Machine was fired as the opener for Weather Report in the U.K.) and control clipped its wings—Drop is an outstanding piece of work and a critical documentation of jazz-rock at its most adventurous.


Track Listing: Neo Caliban Grides; All White; Slightly All the Time; Drop; M.C.; Out-Bloody-Rageous; As If; Dark Swing; Intropigling; Pigling Bland.

Personnel: Mike Ratledge: Lowrey organ, Fender Rhodes electric piano; Elton Dean: saxello, alto saxophone, Fender Rhodes electric piano; Hugh Hopper: bass; Phil Howard: drums.

Record Label: Moonjune Records

Style: Fusion/Progressive Rock


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