Canterbury-associated singer/songwriter Robert Wyatt's recorded output, since an accident that left him paralysed from the waist down in the mid-1970s shut down his ability to play the conventional drum kit, is hardly what anyone would call jazz by any standard definition. But it's important to recognize that, while he was always the more song-oriented member of the classic Soft Machine line-up of the late-1960s and early-1970s, he was as jazz-informed as the rest of the group. His first solo album, The End of an Ear (CBS, 1971) was, in fact, a free jazz exploration, in contrast to subsequent song-oriented releases like Rock Bottom (Rykodisc, 1974), Ruth is Stranger Than Richard (Rykodisc, 1975) and the more recent Shleep (Rykodisc, 1997).
Still, improvisation has always been part of Wyatt's process. When trombonist Annie Whiteheadwho has appeared on Wyatt's last two albums including Cuckooland (Rykodisc, 2003)decided to put together a ten-piece band to perform a cross-section of Wyatt's material, it's no surprise that the material took on an even more extemporaneous edge, despite remaining remarkably faithful to Wyatt's distinctive musical vision. Soupsongs Live: The Music of Robert Wyatt couldn't, in fact, be a better sampler of Wyatt's unique song-writing if he'd performed on it himself. Wyatt, in fact, suggests that it is, "as far as I am concerned, one of the best Robert Wyatt records, and that's no hyperbole.
Virtually all of Wyatt's major releases are represented, but there's particular emphasis on Rock Bottom and Ruth is Stranger Than Richard, most notably on the group's look at the entire "Richard side of Ruth is Stranger Than Richard. Wyatt's whimsical vocal delivery is interpreted with equal caprice and occasional melancholy by Julie Tippetts and Ian Maidmanwho also plays guitars, ukulele and accordion. Liam Genocky is a less idiosyncratic drummer than Wyatt was before his accident, but he brings a defined sense of swing to the nearly two-and-a-half hour performance, most notably on the delicate "September the Ninth and "The Duchess, which features some of Wyatt's most obliquely absurd prose.
Whitehead's arrangements also leave plenty of room for the horn sectionwhich also includes woodwind multi-instrumentalist Didier Malherbe, saxophonist George Khan and trumpeter Harry Beckettto solo both individually and collectively. Keyboardist Janette Mason generally works in the background with Genocky and bassist Steve Lamb, although her piano solo on the darkly beautiful "Sea Song, over Phil Manzanera's sparse and tremolo'd guitar lines, is deeply evocative, demonstrating the full potential of Wyatt's writing.
The second disc finds the ensemble stretching out even more, especially on the funky "Little Red Riding Hits the Road, a feature for Beckett; the gentle waltz of "Alifib/Alife, the plaintive "Sight of the Wind and the lithely propulsive "Gharbzadegi, another lengthy feature for both Beckett and Mason.
Soupsongs Live shouldn't be construed as a substitute for Wyatt's consistently inventive and stylistically far-reaching discography, but it is a compelling adjunct. For those new to Wyatt, his recent compilation His Greatest Misses (Rykodisc, 2005) and Soupsongs Live provide the perfect entry points.
Track Listing: CD1: Sonia; A Sunday in Madrid; Sea Song; September the Ninth; The Duchess; P.L.A.; Alliance; Left on Man; Muddy Mouse (A); Solar Flares; Muddy Mouse (B); 5 Black Notes and 1 White Note; Muddy Mouse (C) which in turn leads to Muddy Mouth; CD2: Free Will and Testament; Team Spirit; Vandalusia; Little Red Riding Hood Hits the Road; Alifib/Alife; Sight of the Wind; Gharbzadegi; Soup Song; Dondestan; Heaps of Sheeps.
Personnel: Julie Tippetts: voice; Ian Maidman: voice, electric and acoustic guitars, ukulele, accordion; Annie Whitehead: trombone, voice, arrangements; Didier Malherbe: flutes, alto and soprano saxophones, doudouk, ocarina; George Khan: tenor and soprano saxophones; Harry Beckett: trumpet, flugelhorn; Phil Manzanera: electric guitar; Janette Mason: keyboards, piano; Steve Lamb: bass; Liam Genockey: drums.