Soft Machine: Live In Paris (2004)
Following an aborted experiment with free drummer Phil Howard, Soft Machine recruited ubiquitous drummer John Marshall to fill out a version of the quartet that ultimately recorded one side of an album and performed about twenty shows before saxophonist Elton Dean left, feeling that the group was not free enough, not a "real" jazz band. The reality is that keyboardist Mike Ratledge and bassist Hugh Hopper, the two remaining members from Soft Machine's Dada-ist pop days, still wanted some structure in their music. But also true was the fact that they were not averse to completely free flights of fancy. Live in Paris documents this short-lived incarnation, at a point in time where they were as loose as they were ever going to get, before Dean was replaced by Karl Jenkins, who ultimately led the group away from experimental territory and directly into the fusion camp.
This recording, previously released by One Way Records as Live in France, has been carefully remastered by Cuneiform. The original release suffered from a thin sound, poor instrumental mix and sometimes painfully bright and harsh saxophone sound. While source tapes can only be cleaned up so much, the improvement on this reissue is palpable; The bottom end is bigger; Marshall's drum kit sounds like a drum kit, and while Dean's sax and Ratledge's signature organ voice are still somewhat abrasive, the whole set is completely listenable.
The material is drawn primarily from Third and Fifth; noticeably absent is any material from the more compositionally dense Fourth, but this is just as well. While Ratledge's extended compositions from Third, namely "Slightly All the Time" and "Out-Bloody-Rageous," get substantially reworked this time around, they are clearly adaptable to the more "music-in-a-test-tube" nature of this incarnation of the Softs. And Hopper's "Facelift," which opens disk two, is a highlight of the entire hundred-and-five-minute set.
But as much as the structured material lays a foundation for the soloists, it is the continuous nature of their set that keeps things interesting. Free passages segue between compositions, and Marshall proves that he was ultimately the right drummer for the job, irrespective of Dean's predilection for Howard. Marshall, who went on to drive both Eberhard Weber's Colours, and his recent impressionistic trio with Arild Andersen and Vassilis Tsaboropoulos, shows his ability to cover everything from rubato passages to out-and-out free segments to more rhythmically-based material like "All White," which would be a staple for the Softs for, well, a couple of years. And while it's hardly a term to apply to the Softs, Marshall can swing as well.
Live in Paris captures a transitional Soft Machine in a period where it may well have been at its extemporaneous best. Jazz and rock combine in a way that is less rigid than what would eventually pass off as fusion. Loose, exciting and exploratory, it is a shame that this incarnation was in existence for so short a time.
Track Listing: Disk 1: Plain Tiffs; All White; Slightly All The Time; Drop; M.C.; Out-Bloody-Rageous
Disk 2: Facelift; And Sevens; As If; LBO; Pigling Bland; At Sixes
Personnel: Elton Dean (saxello, alto sax, electric piano), Hugh Hopper (bass), John Marshall (drums), Mike Ratledge (electric piano, organ)