Any notion of a golden age should always be treated with the utmost scepticism, but the more time passes, the clearer it becomes that the decade from 1965 to 1975 witnessed perhaps the last great step in the evolution of jazz and its relationship with other musical forms. Jazz-rock fusion was destined to peter out in a slew of bland self-indulgence by the end of the 1970s, but for a few years the form was ripe with potential, and this latest installment in the reclamation of Soft Machine adds another brick to what is becoming a figurative wall.
The Softs lineup of Dean/Ratledge/Hopper/Wyatt is reckoned by insiders to be the definitive one, and on the evidence here, there's a lot of substance in that reckoning.
The two sets captured on the CD document them doing a thing so inimitable that once this lineup changed, the dynamics of the music seemed to undergo a negative shift. There's an almost palpable sense of something happening on the likes of Ratledge's "Slightly All The Time," where Hopper takes full advantage of the roving commission his bass was afforded, and the elasticity of Wyatt's time has the effect of subdividing the beat, making for a lack of emphasis where drummers of less wit and grace would simply have floundered. When these factors are considered alongside the kind of plugged-in pastoralism found on Hopper's "Virtually," it becomes clear that this was profoundly a group music and not the kind of thing fashioned to provide a context for virtuoso (but ultimately anonymous) soloing.
Both the equilibrium and the very individuality of the music is cemented in no small part by Ratledge's use of a Lowry organ, the sound of which differs markedly from the more common Hammond. The same is true of Hopper's use of fuzz, which has the effect of transforming his bass into a supplementary lead instrument. Elton Dean might well have been the ideal reed player for the group. As it is, his acerbic lines are often carried along by a rhythmic momentum the likes of which has arguably never been replicated by any other European band.
The DVD which comes with the CD in this package captures a performance recorded for Radio Bremen in Germany, happily featuring the same lineup. Here, perhaps, the importance of almost free improvisation and atonality in the group's music is more obvious, comparatively speaking. The psychedelic backdrop behind the band might have some effect on sensitive retinas, but it does, however, emphasise the nature of the times.
Overall this is seminal documentation of a band in its prime.
Track Listing: CD: Facelift; Virtually; Out-Bloody-Rageous; Neo-Caliban Grides; Teeth; Slightly All The Time;
Eamonn Andrews; Esther's Nose Job. DVD: Neo-Caliban Grides; Out-Bloody-Rageous; Robert
Wyatt's Vocal Improvisation; Eamonn Andrews; All White.
Personnel: Elton Dean: alto saxophone, saxello, electric piano; Mike Ratledge: electric piano, organ;
Hugh Hopper: bass; Robert Wyatt: drums, vocals.