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Soft Machine: Breda Reactor

John Kelman By

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Breda Reactor finds British jazz-rock outfit Soft Machine in one of its many transitional stages. Between the septet that toured in late '69 and the emergence of the "classic" lineup—keyboardist Mike Ratledge, saxophonist Elton Dean, bassist Hugh Hopper, and drummer/vocalist Robert Wyatt—this incarnation was augmented by saxophonist/flautist Lyn Dobson. The quintet may have only lasted three months, but Dobson possessed a strong voice, providing interesting counterpoint to the more free-spirited Dean.

Recorded a month after the Croydon show documented on Cuneiform's Noisette, the set list is similar, but the rapid pace at which this group was evolving—seemingly from night to night—makes it an equally worthwhile experience for fans of this period. Unlike Noisette, Breda Reactor is a double-disc release, providing the opportunity to hear two full sets, in original running order. The inclusion of Hopper's classic epic, the nearly 22-minute "Facelift," gives fans the opportunity to hear the piece in the context of the quintet, and the two-minute excerpt from Ratledge's "Out-Bloody-Rageous" provides an insight into a work in progress. The finished piece wouldn't show up in the group's repertoire until a few weeks later, but it's the inclusion of this prototypical version that, perhaps more than anything else, demonstrates how Soft Machine took risks night after night.

While the recording quality of Breda Reactor isn't as good as the sound on Noisette, it's considerably better than other Voiceprint titles like Facelift, which, while an outstanding performance, was so poorly recorded as to be of interest mainly to the Soft Machine completist. While Dean and Dobson are often overwhelmed by the sheer power of the core trio during ensemble passages, their solos are clearly defined. Dobson, in particular, brings a wealth of textures to the group, most notably with his flute playing, with which he often scats along.

It's difficult to pick any particular highlights from such a strong performance. The kind of complex composition represented by Ratledge's "Eamonn Andrews," and the suite that brings together Hopper's "Mousetrap" and "Noisette" with Ratledge's "Backwards," is balanced with a more freely-improvised sensibility than other jazz-rock bands of the era. It's no surprise that Soft Machine's Third is often considered in the same breath as Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. But while Soft Machine was undoubtedly influenced by Miles, and the reverse most certainly wasn't so, the fact remains that had Soft Machine been an American group, its overall impact on the direction of modern jazz might have been greater.

Still, with most of its studio recordings still in print, and labels like Cuneiform and Voiceprint committed to releasing archival live performances by the group, Soft Machine's influence continues to be felt—just listen to the French group Polysoft's Tribute to Soft Machine from '03. Breda Reactor stands as another important addition to the archives. While not the first album to recommend to newcomers, it's well worth checking out for the seasoned fan; perhaps more than any other live recording available, it demonstrates the unfettered energy and intensity of the Ratledge-Hopper-Wyatt core.

Track Listing: Disc One: Eamonn Andrews; Mousetrap; Noisette; Backwards; Mousetrap (reprise); Hibou Anemone & Bear
Disc Two: Facelift; Moon in June; 12/8 Theme; Drum Link; Esther's Nose Job; Pigling Bland; Cymbalism; Out-Bloody-Rageous; Esther's Nose Job; We Did It Again

Personnel: Hugh Hopper (bass guitar), Mike Ratledge (Lowery organ, electric piano), Robert Wyatt (drums, voice), Elton Dean (alto saxophone, saxello), Lyn Dobson (tenor and soprano saxophones, flute, harmonica, voice)

Title: Breda Reactor | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Voiceprint Records


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