With a recent surge of interest in the 1970s jazz/rock ensemble Soft Machine encouraged by a wealth of archival recordings, some may view use of the word "Soft by past members to be opportunisticbut that would be unfair.
2003 witnessed Soft Works, with ex-Softs bassist Hugh Hopper, saxophonist Elton Dean, drummer John Marshall, and guitarist Allan Holdsworth creating a more fusion-centric band. More recently, Soft Boundsagain with Hopper and Deanhas mined a more acoustic and free space with non-Softs pianist Sophia Domancich and drummer Simon Goubert. Polysoft's Tribute to Soft Machine teamed Hopper and Dean with the French group Polysons, revisiting classic Soft Machine material and coming the closest any group has to true homage.
Other efforts share the common denominator of Hopper and Dean. And despite these various offshoots capturing aspects of the greater whole that was Soft Machine, with the exception of Polysoft they've avoided direct reference, performing little, if any, material from Soft Machine's own discography. Hopper and Dean have moved on, and so these offshoot projects have reflected their growth and interest in a clearer jazz aesthetic than Soft Machine's high-decibel approach.
Soft Works generated the most buzz, because it was the first time a group of all-Soft Machine alumni had come together for a project. The resulting album, Abracadabra, while good, was also something of a disappointment, largely because Holdsworth's characteristic perfectionism sucked some of the life out of it.
And so, with Hopper, Dean, and Marshall wanting to continue on and Holdsworth bowing out, guitarist John Etheridgewho coincidentally replaced Holdsworth in Soft Machinewas recruited. The first of two planned recordings (a studio release is due next year), Live in Zaandam finds the newly-minted Soft Machine Legacy approaching music with a more intrepid and open spirit. Etheridge may not have as big a reputation as Holdsworth, but in his own way he's a more versatile guitarist, having worked in a variety of contexts over the years including a Stephane Grapelli tribute, a project devoted to Frank Zappa's music, and duo collaborations with ex-Police guitarist Andy Summers.
Like Soft Works, Soft Machine Legacy is a more overtly fusion-oriented project than the other offshoots. This time the group also mixes classic Soft Machine material with more recent compositions from each member. Etheridge's "Ash, from his 2003 album of the same name, is a strong vehicle for Dean's lyrical yet free approach and Etheridge's fleet-fingered runs, while his "Big Creese rocks more than any prior Soft-related project. The group revisits Dean's ballad "Baker's Street, a twist on Soft Works' version, "Baker's Treat. Hopper's "1212 shifts rhythmic gears more than once but revolves around a diminished chord vamp where interplay is key, something that's equally vital to the group's extended and more open take on "Kings and Queens, originally from Soft Machine's Fourth.
Structure plays an important part in this music, but more as a general framework. Less restrained and more adventurous than Soft Works, Live in Zaandam is the first from a new collective that will hopefully have greater longevity as well.
Visit Hugh Hopper and John Etheridge on the web.
Personnel: Elton Dean: alto saxophone, saxello, Fender Rhodes piano; John Etheridge: electric guitar;
Hugh Hopper: bass guitar; John Marshall: drums.