When the legendary Canterbury group Soft Machinewith a variety of recent archival live releases generating renewed interestdissolved with a whimper in the late '70s, it had arguably gone through more stylistic shifts in its ten-year run than anyone except perhaps Miles Davis. Best remembered for the classic lineup that released Third and Fourthkeyboardist Mike Ratledge, saxophonist Elton Dean, bassist Hugh Hopper and drummer Robert Wyattthe group's successful cross-pollination of jazz and rock was as much about individual differences, which created incredible musical tension and energy, as it was about shared goals.
Of the fourdespite moving on and forging individual careers that honed their specific strengths and musical predilectionshistory has proven Hopper and Dean to be the two with the most in common. Sure, Hopper tends towards more structured, albeit idiosyncratic and abstruse, composition, while Dean has always leaned towards free improvisation. But somewhere in the middle the two meet, as evidenced by the many times they've collaborated in ensuing years. Whether members of groups by other Canterburians, including guitarist Phil Miller's In Cahoots and drummer Pip Pyle's Equip Out, or collaborating on a variety of loosely Soft Machine-related projects like Soft Head, Soft Heap, and Soft Works, the juncture between Dean and Hopper seems to be where compositional form provides the framework, but freer improvisation the spark to greater unpredictability.
This ability to intuitively veer between structure and unencumbered interaction is what makes one of their latest projects, Soft Bounds, work so well. Teaming with French pianist Sophia Domancichwho worked with both in Equip Out and released a live album of improvised duets, Avant, with Dean earlier this yearand drummer Simon Goubert, one of the more surprising aspects of Soft Bounds is that it represents the first Soft Machine-related project to tackle material from the original Softs repertoire. Live at Le Triton 2004 features a lengthy look at Hopper's "Kings and Queens (originally on Fourth) in addition to one track each by the other members, but the group's known to cover other Softs material during the course of an evening.
There are unequivocal ties to classic Soft Machine, most notably the tightrope between form and freedom. But with the exception of Hopper's electric bass and Domancich's Rhodes on the second half of Goubert's surprisingly Coltrane-esque modal workout "Le Retour d'Emmanuel Philibert, this is an altogether more acoustic affair where the power comes from the players' inherent dynamics rather than sheer electric volume. Domancich's "La Part des Anges the longest of the four pieces that comprise the hour-long setmanages to dissolve into maelstrom-like periods of chaos, only to magically find its way back to form.
What's most striking about Live at Le Triton 2004 is its clear reverence for jazz tradition, and not of the fusion variety. Instead, Soft Bounds finds the confluence of post bop, free jazz, European impressionism, and even a certain lyricism, making it one of the best Soft Machine spinoffs to date.
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