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Soft Machine: Drop

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Despite significant ambivalence about Soft Machine around the time of this recording, it was the furthest out that the group ever ventured, and its closest approach to free jazz. It also possessed the freest drummer to ever grace a rock group. Australian Phil Howard was, in fact, free by most jazz standards, but by jettisoning the exceptional Robert Wyatt, the band deserted its last link with songs and humor. Howard was, however, one of the era's truly original and most extraordinary drummers.

Drop, along with Fifth (CBS, 1972)—possesses historical significance beyond its release. It marks a threshold for jazz-rock fusion, bearing greater resemblance to Tony Williams' original Lifetime, The Fourth Way, early Weather Report, and some of the late-'60s/early-'70s music from Gary Burton, John McLaughlin and Larry Coryell than the music of Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever and, indeed, Soft Machine itself after John Marshall's recruitment. Rhythmically, it was far freer, representing a brave attempt to fuse electric instrumentation with a more adventurous rhythm section.

Heaven for saxophonist Elton Dean and Howard, but challenging for keyboardist Mike Ratledge and bassist Hugh Hopper, who were both looking for more compositional variety than Howard's freeform drum style would allow (somewhere between Jack DeJohnette, Tony Williams, Robert Wyatt and Milford Graves). Interestingly, Howard's approach was anticipated in part by Wyatt's own End of an Ear (CBS, 1970), where he employed a very free but less relentless approach on "Las Vegas Tango."

Howard never takes a break, stops playing or slows down, but adds great flare to Ratledge's "Slightly All the Time" and "Out-Bloody-Rageous" from Third (CBS, 1970)—suites of contrasting musical ideas that, here, represent a steamroller of thoughts and musical fragments. Fifth's opener, "All White," is manic in its intensity, while "As If" contrasts with John Marshall's excellent but very controlled drumming, sounding more vibrant and powerful—almost bursting with energy despite its laidback structure.

The players respond differently to the freedom posed by this line-up. Dean revels in it and has never sounded better. Hopper, feeling redundant in this group, was struggling to work within the instrument's traditional foundational role, despite some admirable playing. This setting allowed him to free up his great melodic approach, taking his signature fuzz tone to extraordinary levels. Ratledge, one of the best improvisers and composers of his generation, stretches out more fully than at any time since the Wyatt-Ayers-Ratledge Soft Machine incarnartion, where he played pop songs with a Cecil Taylor-esque sensibility. What came after was not bad, but reflected a confinement of musical ideas rather than an organic expansion, setting the stage for the repetitiveness of Seven (CBS, 1973).

A fascinating document of one of the best bands in the world in full flight—before the conventions of commerce (Howard was allegedly let go after Soft Machine was fired as the opener for Weather Report in the U.K.) and control clipped its wings—Drop is an outstanding piece of work and a critical documentation of jazz-rock at its most adventurous.

Track Listing: Neo Caliban Grides; All White; Slightly All the Time; Drop; M.C.; Out-Bloody-Rageous; As If; Dark Swing; Intropigling; Pigling Bland.

Personnel: Mike Ratledge: Lowrey organ, Fender Rhodes electric piano; Elton Dean: saxello, alto saxophone, Fender Rhodes electric piano; Hugh Hopper: bass; Phil Howard: drums.

Title: Drop | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: Moonjune Records

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