Soft Machine: Somewhere in Soho (2004)
A few months after the recordings that would result in an undisputed classic of progressive rock/jazz, Third , Soft Machine had pared down from an octet to a leaner, meaner quartet. Remaining were keyboardist Mike Ratledge, bassist Hugh Hopper, drummer/vocalist Robert Wyatt and a relative newcomer, saxophonist Elton Dean, who would continue to drive the group in further and further outward-reaching directions over the next couple of years. The group would shift around him, first in seeming agreement and then gradually moving towards the riff-based format that would see Soft Machine reinvent itself as a jazz fusion band, more and more under the influence of reedman/keyboardist Karl Jenkins.
But back to May of '70, when these two discs were culled from a six-night residence at Ronnie Scott's legendary club in Soho. While the recording quality is low-fi at best, sounding more like a bootleg recording than a professional production, it is remarkable how, after only a few minutes into Ratledge's "Slightly All the Time," which opens the first disc, one forgets about the questionably sound and is pulled completely into a performance that combines inventive melodies with more avant leanings. Ratledge was always the more approachable composer and his contributions, making up more than half of the two sets represented, remain as fresh, engaging and, at the same time, curious as ever.
Soft Machine was always about tension, and what made this incarnation of the band arguably its most revered is exactly that push-and-pull between the various members: Ratledge, the more straightforward melodically and harmonically; Hopper, the more avant-leaning; Wyatt, still the dadaist singer; and Dean, the free player. How each player's dispositions came together into a blend where everyone asserted their own personalities, while at the same time meshing into a cohesive whole, makes this era of Soft Machine as innovative as other artists exploring more plugged-in jazz, including Miles Davis and Weather Report.
While Wyatt was already becoming disenchanted with the group's move away from song form into extended instrumental improvisation, he remained a remarkably flexible and creative drummer. John Marshall, who would ultimately replace Wyatt for later incarnations, came from a more traditional jazz background, but it is exactly Wyatt's lack of convention that makes him such a strong foil. Whether on Hopper's twenty-minute tour-de-force "Facelift," which crosses modal vamps with more unstructured free improvisation, or Ratledge's more consistently-rhythmical "Out-Bloody-Rageous," Wyatt is a fountain of ideas, less about establishing straightforward groove and more about the cavalier time sense of, say, Elvin Jones or Tony Williams.
Despite the poor recording quality, the commitment and sheer élan of the players is so palpable that one cannot help being drawn into these performances, which are amongst the best of the spate of archival Soft Machine releases in recent years. Hardly the best place for a neophyte to start, Somewhere in Soho should nevertheless be of significant interest to the established Soft Machine fan who wants to hear the group at one of its undisputed high points.
Track Listing: Disc One: Slightly All the Time; Out-Bloody-Rageous; Eamonn Andrews; Mousetrap; Noisette; Backwards; Noisette (reprise); Hibou Anemone & Bear
Disc Two: Facelift; Moon in June; Esther's Nose Job; Pigling Bland; Cymbalism; Esther's Nose Job (reprise)
Personnel: Mike Ratledge (lowery organ and electric piano), Hugh Hopper (bass guitar), Elton Dean (alto sax and saxello), Robert Wyatt (drums and voice)