Soft Machine: British Tour '75

John Kelman By

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Recent years have seen a wealth of archival live releases by British jazz-rock legend Soft Machine. But the lion's share of this material has revolved around the period 1970-72, which saw the classic lineup of keyboardist Mike Ratledge, saxophonist Elton Dean, bassist Hugh Hopper, and drummer Robert Wyatt morph from a freewheeling high-volume exploratory quartet into a more straightforward riff-based fusion band; ex-Nucleus reedman/keyboardist Karl Jenkins would assume leadership, along with another Nucleus alumnus, drummer John Marshall. The artistic success of the original Soft Machine was paradoxically the result of the very musical differences that would see it ultimately splinter.

But even releases at the tail end of the classic Soft Machine period, notably Hux's recent Softstage: BBC In Concert 1972, relied on a repertoire that was favourably weighted towards compositions by Ratledge and Hopper and, consequently, a more gradual evolution. Subsequent commercial releases, specifically 1973's Six and 1974's Seven, saw the Softs move towards a musical vision that was almost entirely Jenkins,' so by the time Bundles came out in 1975, virtually all vestiges of the original group were gone. Ratledge remained for a brief time, but his distinctive solo voice was increasingly suppressed in favour of a more guitar-centric sound featuring the emerging Allan Holdsworth, an evolution well-documented on Hux's two-CD set BBC Radio 1971-1974.

But even the lineup of Bundles wouldn't last, as the mercurial Holdsworth suddenly decided to pull up roots and head for North America shortly after the album's release. With tours booked and little time to search for a replacement, the remaining Softs were lucky to find guitarist John Etheridge—suggested, in fact, by the departing Holdsworth. This lineup—Jenkins, Marshall, Etheridge, Ratledge, and bassist Roy Babbington—is documented on British Tour '75, a welcome release. While there was little to link this version of Soft Machine to earlier incarnations, it was still a powerful force to be reckoned with.

This recording features material from Bundles, as well as some sneak peeks into compositions that would ultimately end up on 1976's Softs. It's notable just how strong a fit Etheridge was. Holdsworth would go on to fashion his unique harmonic language in a career marked by insularity, while Etheridge would be a more itinerant player; but at this point their approaches were surprisingly alike. Emitting breathtakingly rapid-fire flurries of notes broken up by the occasional well-placed breather, Etheridge shares the solo space with Ratledge—a pleasant surprise, given his relative invisibility on Bundles. And in contrast to Jenkins' more rigid structural role on the studio releases, the group gets to open up more loosely, especially on the fifteen-minute closing jam, "Sign of Five."

Fans of the classic Soft Machine lineup have been less than kind to the latter, Jenkins-centric Softs. But on British Tour '75, largely distanced from its earlier incarnations, Soft Machine was still a kick-ass unit that deserves to be assessed on its own merits.

Track Listing: Bundles; Land of the Bag Snake; Out of Season; The Man Who Waved at Trains; JVH; The Floating World; Ban-Ban Caliban; Sideburn; Hazard Profile Part 1; Hazard Profile Part 2; Hazard Profile Part 3; Hazard Profile Part 4; Hazard Profile Part 5; Song of Aeolus; Sign of Five.

Personnel: Karl Jenkins: electric piano, soprano saxophone, piano; John Etheridge: guitars; Roy Babbington: bass guitar; John Marshall: drums, percussion; Mike Ratledge: organ, synthesizer, electric piano.

Title: British Tour '75 | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Major League Productions


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