John Etheridge: More Than a Legacy

Bruce Lindsay By

Sign in to view read count
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."

There's another reason Soft Machine Legacy could never be a tribute band, says Etheridge. "If you've been members of a group then you don't have to pay tribute to it." Was Burden of Proof chosen as the album title to reflect this maturity and confidence, to show that Soft Machine Legacy has nothing to prove? "I called my tune 'Burden of Proof'—I don't know why. The more we thought about it, the more we liked it as an album title. Maybe there's a legal link between legacy and proof. I wouldn't take it any further than that, but if you want to read more into it then maybe that could work."

It's almost 50 years since Soft Machine started, so what does Etheridge think is the band's legacy? "People say that the early lineups had quite a wide influence. They speak of early Pink Floyd and early Soft Machine in the same breath. One thing was singing in a very English accent. Syd Barrett probably did it first, but Robert Wyatt wasn't far behind. ... In a sense, Soft Machine was part of a scene with its own quirks—you could call it the jazz-rock-fusion scene— that was part of its charm."

Etheridge expands on this idea of quirkiness with enthusiasm. "Mike Ratledge [Soft Machine's original keyboard player], Hopper and Wyatt weren't trained musicians; they hadn't studied formally. Their impression of things came out in quite a quirky way. I'm not formally trained, nor is John Marshall, so that element of left-field approaches is carried on. Once you've been to school and learned bebop, you're stuffed, basically. That's why so much American jazz is so predictable. They go to school, learn Charlie Parker solos by rote. Once you've done that, it's difficult to move too far away from it. For Soft Machine, that was a strength but also a weakness. When you listen to those early albums now, you think, 'Oh, that sounds interesting. That's a strange way to play that. Are they really in 5/4 there?' Even the Mahavishnu Orchestra had that approach at times. Billy Cobham said that everybody had a different idea about where the one was; no one was quite sure what time signature they were playing in. If Soft Machine's members had all studied music, it probably wouldn't have sounded so quirky. It would have sounded like absolutely correct American jazz—and it would've been really boring."

Soft Machine Legacy might be the focus of this interview, but Etheridge's other projects are also close to his heart. Does any one of them take precedence over the others? "If I had to choose, it would probably be the duo with John Williams, although John would never force the issue. He's very organized, anyway; his dates get planned years in advance. I'd drop quite a few things for Soft Machine Legacy, but the problem there is the reverse. When we try to get dates in Italy, for example, they never get fixed up until a month or six weeks in advance, so often one or more of us can't do it. In 2005, we set off for an 18-date Italian tour. When we arrived, it'd come down to 12 dates, and we ended up playing just three! I like doing my solo stuff, and that also works well economically. Sweet Chorus trundles on, and that's pretty cool. My duo with Chris [Garrick] has just finished a new album: we recorded a set of really gloomy, maudlin, songs over Christmas."

Etheridge sounds very cheerful about such gloomy tunes. "The duo covers a lot of ground musically, more than we do in Sweet Chorus. We do some of that material, but we also do loads of looping and improvising. None of these things usually involve more than 10 or 15 gigs a year, which keeps my work varied. I've also got an organ trio with Pete Whittaker and Mark Fletcher. I really want to record that project, too. It's not even listed on the website, but it's the next album I want to do. In the end, what I really like doing is contemporary blues-fusiony electric guitar. I hate the word 'fusion,' but that's really what I enjoy doing the most. I don't do enough of it. I think I enjoy Soft Machine Legacy gigs the most, partly because it's a democratic band, and I'm not the leader. We do have very enjoyable tours. I like them all as long as I don't have to do too much of the same thing."

Etheridge's work continues to be viewed with respect, leading to a nomination for the 2013 Parliamentary Jazz Award for Musician of the Year. "It's my third nomination. It's always very nice to gain that type of recognition. The first two times, I was very pleased to be nominated. I wasn't too upset not to win. I like to be part of things; it's reassuring. I think the profile of these awards has gone up a bit, so lots of people know I've been nominated this year. It came out of the blue. I'll be going along on the night, and I'll be chuffed to win. But it'll be OK if I don't."

Selected Discography

Soft Machine Legacy, Burden of Proof (Moonjune Records, 2013)
Soft Machine Legacy, Live Adventures (Moonjune Records, 2010)
Soft Machine Legacy, Steam (Moonjune Records, 2010)
Sweet Chorus, Small Hotel (Dyad, 2009)
Soft Machine Legacy, Soft Machine Legacy (Moonjune Records, 2006)
Chris Garrick and John Etheridge, At The Dimming of the Day (Flying Blue Whale Records, 2006)
Soft Machine Legacy, Live in Zaandam (Moonjune Records, 2005)
Sweet Chorus, Tribute to Grappelli (Dyad, 1998)
Soft Machine, Softs (Harvest, 1976)

Photo Credits
All photos courtesy of John Etheridge

Post a comment



View events near London
Jazz Near London
Events Guide | Venue Guide | Get App | More...

Shop Amazon


All About Jazz needs your support

All About Jazz & Jazz Near You were built to promote jazz music: both recorded and live events. We rely primarily on venues, festivals and musicians to promote their events through our platform. With club closures, shelter in place and an uncertain future, we've pivoted our platform to collect, promote and broadcast livestream concerts to support our jazz musician friends. This is a significant but neccesary effort that will help musicians now, and in the future. You can help offset the cost of this essential undertaking by making a donation today. In return, we'll deliver an ad-free experience (which includes hiding the bottom right video ad). Thank you.

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.