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Soft Machine: Floating World Live

John Kelman By

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Fans of Soft Machine, which began with mid-1960s psychedelia but evolved into Britain's most influential jazz/rock group, generally consider the "classic lineup to be keyboardist Mike Ratledge, bassist Hugh Hopper, drummer Robert Wyatt and the recently deceased saxophonist Elton Dean. Many also suggest that ex-Nucleus woodwind multi-instrumentalist/keyboardist Karl Jenkins' recruitment signalled the beginning of the end, as the Softs moved from greater freedom towards riff-heavy fusion. But it's a more complicated story than that. The fact is that many post-Dean records stand the test of time—especially 1975's Bundles, which introduced a young Allan Holdsworth, who would go on to become one of fusion's most distinctive and influential guitarists.

Live recordings of the "classic Softs lineup abound, but recordings of later incarnations are scarce. Floating World Live, a 1975 performance originally broadcast by Germany's Radio Bremen, gives those who missed the short-lived Holdsworth-era Softs in live performance an opportunity to assess the group in an entirely different light.

The album's lengthy liner notes clarify that Jenkins' more dominant compositional role was a natural progression, rather than a power play. While his riff-heavy writing seemed more restrictive than earlier Softs material, Floating World finds this group as loose and improvisational as its predecessors, just in a different way.

The set list, culled mainly from Bundles, also features early versions of two tunes from 1976's Softs and a strangely subdued "Penny Hitch from 1974's Seven, a flat-out jam with solo spots for Ratledge, bassist Roy Babbington, Ratledge and drummer John Marshall. Opening with the minimalist two-keyboard fanfare of "The Floating World, the group then launches into a powerhouse version of the title track from Bundles. It's immediately clear just how well-formed Holdsworth's unique voice was at this early stage—his cascading and lightning-fast John Coltrane-inspired legato runs are unconventional and precedent-setting.

Ratledge plays a less pronounced role and Jenkins favours keyboards over reeds, so Holdsworth is the primary solo voice. But equally revealing is Babbington, who more often than not played a purely supportive role. Here—in his ensemble work and the six-minute solo, "Ealing Comedy —he demonstrates a surprising capacity for invention and interaction.

Powerful and intuitive, Marshall sadly never received the acclaim of American counterparts like Billy Cobham and Lenny White, but he turns "J.S.M. into a ten-minute tour-de-force that's high on substance and low on meaningless pyrotechnics. "Riff III begins as a one-chord vamp, but is really a precursor to Softs' "Ban Ban Caliban, as opposed to the fiery and completely extemporaneous "Endgame, where Holdsworth demonstrates why, in later years, his perfectionist tendencies would dilute the intense energy that characterized his earlier, less self-edited work.

The only downside of Floating World is the fadeout in the middle of Holdsworth's mind-bending solo on "Hazard Profile (Part I). But back in the day, radio broadcasts were truly live transmissions and, sadly, that was the point chosen by Radio Bremen to break for commercial announcements. Still, it's a minor quibble on an album that has plenty of Holdsworth to satisfy his fans, and puts a new spin on this visceral and innovative Softs incarnation.


Track Listing: The Floating World; Bundles; Land of the Bag Snake; Ealing Comedy; The Man Who Waved at Trains; Peff; North Point; Hazard Profile (Part One); J.S.M.; Riff III; Song of Aeolus; Endgame; Penny Hitch (Coda).

Personnel: Mike Ratledge: Lowrey organ, electric piano, synthesizers; Karl Jenkins: oboe, soprano saxophone, recorder, electric piano, acoustic piano; John Marshall: drums, percussion; Allan Holdsworth: electric guitar, violin; Roy Babbington: bass guitar.

Title: Floating World Live | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Moonjune Records


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