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John Etheridge: More Than a Legacy

Bruce Lindsay By

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The home page of guitarist John Etheridge's website reveals that he's involved in seven current projects: nothing too unusual in the life of a contemporary jazz musician. Closer inspection quickly shows that the term "jazz musician" fails miserably to encompass the full range of Etheridge's work. There's his career as a solo performer; his duo with the classical guitarist John Williams; his duo with violinist Chris Garrick; Garrick and Etheridge's quartet Sweet Chorus, inspired by Stephane Grappelli; his trio with bassist Arild Andersen and drummer John Marshall; and the Frank Zappa-inspired Zappatistas.

There are plenty of previous projects, too, among them a lengthy working relationship with Grappelli and collaborations with violinists Nigel Kennedy and Darryl Way (in Wolf). There are also projects in development—not yet ready to appear on the website but high on Etheridge's agenda for the short to medium term.

So which of these fascinating projects might make a good starting point for an interview with this jovial and talkative English musician, now in his fifth decade as a professional musician? Any of them might have proved suitable—just days before this interview, Etheridge had returned to the UK after a short American tour with Williams. However, it's project number seven that forms the focus for most of this interview: Soft Machine Legacy, whose fifth album, Burden of Proof (Moonjune Records, 2013), was released shortly before this interview took place.

There are relatively few bands that have made an impact on the development of both progressive rock and contemporary jazz, but Soft Machine, the band that leads directly to Soft Machine Legacy, is one of them. The group formed in the mid- '60s, part of the Canterbury scene that also featured bands such as Caravan, the Wilde Flowers and Egg. Early incarnations of the band featured Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers, and in August 1970 the band became the first rock group to perform at the BBC Proms in London's Royal Albert Hall. Etheridge joined the group in 1975 on the recommendation of departing guitarist Allan Holdsworth and appeared on Softs (Harvest, 1976).

Soft Machine underwent numerous lineup changes before splitting in the '80s. In 2002, bassist Hugh Hopper, saxophonist Elton Dean, Holdsworth and Marshall got together and began touring and recording once more, first as Soft Ware then as Soft Works. Etheridge joined the band in 2004, replacing Holdsworth. "There was a gig in Turkey. Allan couldn't do it, so I got the call. After that, I joined full time, and we named the band Soft Machine Legacy from that moment."

Why was the name changed? "Promoters were saying that they wanted the name Soft Machine. A lot of people suggested that we just called ourselves Soft Machine, but we didn't want to do that. We didn't want to create any controversy. We settled on Soft Machine Legacy. It does run the danger of sounding like a tribute act, but of course anyone who knew the band's history and the Soft Machine Legacy lineup of the time [Hopper, Dean, Marshall and Etheridge] knew that wasn't the case. It was a really interesting lineup—all bona fide Soft Machine members—but we had never previously played together. I only met Hugh in 2004. I'd played with Elton quite a lot, and John obviously, but we've never played as a quartet. It was a great project from the start."

Dean died in 2006, and his place was taken by Theo Travis. Travis is the only member of the band who never played in Soft Machine itself, but his past experience includes work with early Soft Machine member Daevid Allen's Gong. "We felt from the start that we didn't need to play the old material. We did play some of it, but everybody was writing as well. Hugh wasn't keen on playing Karl Jenkins' material—they've never got on very well.[Jenkins played keyboards in Soft Machine during the '70s.] We didn't push the issue, but we were keen to do some of it. We now do 'The Nodder' and 'Song of Aeolus' [which both appear on Live Adventures (Moonjune Records, 2010)]. I was always keen to do some old material, partly for the sake of continuity and partly because some of it has hardly ever been heard before, so we could give it a fresh approach."

Soft Machine Legacy draws on the Soft Machine back catalog, but there's a strong focus on new material. "Overall, about 50 to 60 percent of the band's music is new. Originally Hugh, Elton and myself all wrote, but there's always been a strong improvisational element. We didn't, as far as I remember, have a surfeit of material for Burden of Proof. The three tunes I brought were recorded, as were both of Theo's, I think, but a lot of the album was improvised. We wanted to concentrate on that improvisational element. We developed this approach over the years."

The only part of Soft Machine's history that's missing from Soft Machine Legacy's program is the earliest period, which produced the first two albums. "Yes, I know very little about that period. When I joined Soft Machine in 1975, I knew Third (Columbia, 1970) onwards, although I hadn't really listened to them much. I had no particular brief for that original period. At the time, all the changes caused a lot of trouble. New members would come in and start criticizing the last lot. Looking back, you can see that every period was interesting, but they were all completely different. Also, in a way, the development of Soft Machine Legacy parallels what's gone before. Hugh and Elton were keen on free improvisation. When Theo joined we started to move unconsciously in more of a jazz-rock direction. Hugh was less comfortable with that: it seems to have paralleled what went on in the '70s."

Hopper died in 2008, to be replaced by another ex-Soft Machine musician, bassist Roy Babbington. "When Roy came in, we became more like the '70s band. Actually, I think we're much better than the '70s band in the sense that this is a more mature group. We don't have those adolescent values: super chops, lots of displays of technique. We got over that."

Etheridge is clearly proud of Burden of Proof. "I think it's a sophisticated and mature album. It includes elements of all the Soft Machine periods except the first two records. I think we're faithful to the spirit of those Soft Machine lineups. Not to the letter—no one wants to be faithful to the letter." That precise attention to detail is the key aim of the tribute band. "It is. Not that I have anything against it: I always wanted to have my own Steely Dan tribute band. I admire those groups; there's a lot of work involved in reproducing something faithfully."
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