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Soft Machine & Heavy Friends: BBC in Concert 1971

John Kelman By

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Released briefly on Windsong in the mid-'90s before going out of print and commanding large sums on eBay, the BBC recording of Soft Machine's March 11, 1971 Paris Theatre show in London, England was a one-off performance that most fans of the classic lineup—keyboardist Mike Ratledge, saxophonist Elton Dean, bassist Hugh Hopper, and drummer Robert Wyatt—could previously only dream of hearing. Thankfully Hux, which has been responsible for rescuing all kinds of BBC recordings from the archives and making them available to a wider audience, has not only reissued this important document, but also remastered it and added an additional track to boot.

Billed to "Soft Machine & Heavy Friends," the 54-minute set brings together Dean's Just Us—Dean, Ratledge, drummer Phil Howard (who would briefly end up a Soft Machine member for one side of Fifth), cornet player Mark Charig, and bassist Neville Whitehead—with double-bassist Roy Babbington (who would ultimately end up a full-fledged member of the group from Seven through Softs), trombonist Paul Nieman, and saxophonist Ronnie Scott. While Soft Machine had experimented with an expanded lineup in '70 around the time of Third, this collection of players from the British free jazz scene made possible some of the most open-ended music of their career. It also allowed them to perform material from Fourth and Fifth—specifically Ratledge's "Teeth" and Hopper's "Kings and Queens," two pieces that would never make it into the group's regular repertoire.

The set starts out with Just Us performing "Blind Badger," one of the more structured compositions from Dean's self-titled debut, although it ultimately heads for freer territory by the end. "Neo-Caliban Grides," another Dean piece from the same album, is performed this time by Soft Machine with Howard added. The double drum kit salvo of Wyatt and Howard, when combined with Hopper's aggressive fuzz bass, creates a chaotic wall of sound that's Soft Machine at their most intense and outré.

"Neo-Caliban Grides" segues into a 32-minute medley by Soft Machine that brings together more structured compositions—an excerpt from "Out Bloody Rageous," "Eamonn Andrews," "All White," "Kings and Queens," "Teeth," "Pigling Bland," and "10:30 Returns to the Bedroom." The first half of the medley features the core quartet, but by the time they hit Ratledge's complicated epic "Teeth," the group has expanded to a nonet, with solos by Scott and Nieman adding considerable interest to what may be the best augmented Soft Machine lineup ever.

The remastered sound of Hux's reissue is a definite improvement over the earlier Windsong release, although why the added track, "Slightly All the Time (excerpt)/Noisette," is of lower quality is a little curious. Still, it's a minor quibble, because BBC in Concert 1971 is an essential addition to the growing body of archival performances of Soft Machine being released by labels like Hux and Voiceprint. As time goes on, Soft Machine's importance and influence continues to grow; the group's music is as relevant today as it was over thirty years ago.

Track Listing: John Peel Introduction; Blind Badger; Neo-Caliban Grides; Medley: Out Bloody Rageous/Eamonn Andrews/All White/Kings and Queens/Teeth/Pigling Bland/10:30 Returns to the Bedroom; Slightly All The Time/Noisette.

Personnel: Elton Dean (alto saxophone, saxello); Mike Ratledge (organ, piano); Hugh Hopper (electric bass on all except "Blind Badger"); Robert Wyatt (drums on all except "Blind Badger"); Mark Charig (cornet on all except "Neo-Caliban Grides," "Slightly All the Time/Noisette"); Phil Howard (drums on "Blind Badger," "Neo-Caliban Grides"); Neville Whitehead (bass on all except "Neo-Caliban Grides," "Slightly All the Time/Noisette"); Roy Babbington (acoustic bass on "Medley"); Paul Nieman (trombone on "Medley"); Ronnie Scott (tenor saxophone on "Medley").

Title: BBC in Concert 1971 | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Hux Records

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