In recent years, followers of the Soft Machine have had a boon of documents that have shown the band's continual refinement as a jazz-rock juggernaut. Most of the live performances that have surfaced have been the "classic early '70s quartet with bassist Hugh Hopper, organist/electric pianist Mike Ratledge, saxophonist Elton Dean and drummer Robert Wyatt.
The Softs formed in 1967; apart from two ABC/Probe recordings and an early bootleg featuring Gong ringleader Daevid Allen (originally appearing on a BYG offshoot, it has circulated on numerous grey labels), the group's evolution during its formative years has not been well-captured. Featuring the trio of Wyatt, Ratledge and vocalist/guitarist/bassist Kevin Ayers, Middle Earth Masters, culled from performances in September 1967 and May 1968, could change our perception of the Softs' transition from psychedelia to a unique improvisational unit.
The set opens with the Ayers warhorse "Clarence in Wonderland, a surreal vocal number that, if one is weaned on truly left-field Wyatt scatting (see the intro to "Hope for Happiness ), may seem rather conventional. Ayers' appearances with the band were limited to the first two years of their existence, documented to advantage on Soft Machine One (Probe, 1968). That LP presented suites from the trio heard here, but in a decidedly more reigned-in studio setting. As one might expect, the open-form jazz proclivities that characterize later Softs dates are at disparate odds with their first proper LP.
Middle Earth Masters presents a much freer earlier Softs, not only in Ratledge's debauched organ fuzz, as unaccompanied patchwork on "Disorganisation, but in Wyatt's drumming, even at this stage owing significantly to Sunny Murray and Andrew Cyrille. Despite the tape phasing and resultant trash can-pummeling sound of Hugh Hopper's "I Should've Known, Wyatt's prowess as a decidedly modern jazz-influenced drummer is apparent in the lengthy solo that brings the piece to a close.
Ayers' presence here is not huge, and despite his malleable bass work, his songwriting and arranging skills could make for a sore thumb as the improvisations of Wyatt and Ratledge surge beyond. Still quite rock-based, in some ways this incarnation of the group appears more unruly, ragged edges coating each thematic nugget, something occasionally lost to the clean alto-organ lines of their second decade.
In essence, this archival recording presents a band more at odds with its own evolution than was previously discernible. The Softs' inner push and pull are evident even over the course of the set, making Middle Earth Masters a crucial piece of the puzzle.
Clarence in Wonderland; We Know What You Mean; Bossa Nova Express; Hope for Happiness; Disorganisation; We Did It Again; Why Are We Sleeping?; I Should've Known; THat's How Much I Need You Now; I Should've Known; A Certain Kind.
Kevin Ayers: guitar, bass, vocals; Mike Ratledge: organ; Robert Wyatt: drums, vocals.
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