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Soft Machine: NDR Jazz Workshop –Hamburg, Germany 1973

Nic Jones By

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By May, 1973, Soft Machine was well on its way from being a truly remarkable outfit to being a comparatively anonymous fusion band. This CD and DVD set goes to show this, but at least the music is played with the kind of fire that wasn't apparent on their studio albums of the time.

While the rhythm section—bassist Roy Babbington and drummer John Marshall—was a lot more "correct" than its predecessors, the pair does inject a kind of redeeming energy into "Link 1 / Link 2," while Karl Jenkins, on baritone sax, proves that he did, indeed, have equal facility on reeds and keyboards. In such company, Soft Machine's sole surviving founding member, keyboardist Mike Ratledge, plays it a lot straighter than he did in earlier incarnations of the band.

"Down The Road" gets a lengthier workout here than it does on Seven (Sony, 1973), with the addition of guitarist Gary Boyle making for a certain creative tension lacking in the studio version. The repetitive bass line gets a little wearing over ten minutes, though, especially when considering how earlier incarnations of the band would, perhaps, have utilized it as a mere starting point.

"Chloe And The Pirates" is both as experimental as anything on offer here —with one notable exception—and an opportunity for Art Themen to take a fiery and inspired soprano sax solo, in a context in which this customary stalwart of Stan Tracey's band has rarely been heard. He's almost quacking like Steve Lacy towards the solo's end, which in an odd way only goes to show that inspiration wasn't too far away—even if the music was radically different from what earlier Soft Machine lineups delivered.

The DVD largely duplicates the CD's contents, highlighting the group's emphasis on the music. Whilst there's nothing inherently wrong with this, the visuals add little to the overall experience.

The same can't be said for ex-Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper's "1983," in audio only on the DVD. It effectively summarizes that much missed individual's idiosyncratic take on fusion, as it stood at the time. Never afraid to utilize tape manipulation as a means for making music, Hopper's piece is a reminder of what his old band was leaving behind. The brooding, foreboding qualities of the piece never lets up, but the manner in which they're augmented by extraneous sounds makes for a tension unlike anything even within the composer's canon. Soft Machine certainly would never produce anything like it again, after this point in time.

Track Listing: CD: Fanfare; All White; Link1/Link2; 37 ½; Link 3; Riff; Down the Road; Link 3a; Stanley Stamp's Gibbon Album; Chloe and the Pirates; Gesolreut; E.P.V.; Link 4; Stumble; One Across; Riff II. DVD: Fanfare; All White; Link1; The Soft Weed Factor; Link2; 37 ½; Link 3; Riff; Stanley Stamp's Gibbon Album; Chloe and the Pirates; Gesolreut; E.P.V.; Link 4; Stumble; One Across; Riff II; 1983 (bonus audio only); Encore Improvisation/Stumble Reprise (bonus audio only).

Personnel: Roy Babbington: bass; Karl Jenkins: oboe, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, recorded piano, electric piano, piano; John Marshall: drums; Mike Ratledge: electric piano, organ; Gary Boyle: guitar (CD#7-16, DVD#1-16, DVD#18); Art Themen: soprano and tenor saxophones (CD#7-16, DVD#1-16, DVD#18); Hugh Hopper: bass and tapeloops (DVD#17).

Title: NDR Jazz Workshop –Hamburg, Germany 1973 | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: Cuneiform Records

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