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Soft Machine Legacy: New Morning--The Paris Concert

John Kelman By

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Soft Machine Legacy
New Morning: The Paris Concert
Inakustuk
2006

Some would argue that Soft Machine didn't technically take its last wheezing gasps until the early 1980s, with the release of the largely inconsistent Land of Cockayne (EMI, 1981). Most, however, would agree that the seminal British jazz/rock group's last proper release was Alive and Well—Recorded in Paris, the first album where not a single member remained from the group that originally began as a Dadaist psychedelic band in 1966, emerging from the ashes of the Wilde Flowers.

Virtually every Soft Machine album released during its existence was an evolution from the ones that came before—with the possible exception of the period from Bundles (Harvest, 1975) through Alive and Well (Harvest, 1978), where they became a largely guitar-centric fusion band, first with the soon-to-be-legendary Allan Holdsworth and then the perennially underrated John Etheridge. But there was a certain spirit, a feeling that anything was possible that permeated the band throughout the majority of its existence.

There are those who are fans of the early song-based days of The Soft Machine (Probe, 1968) and Volume Two (Probe, 1969), and those who preferred the aforementioned guitar-driven period from 1975 to 1978 when the group was largely spearheaded by keyboardist/saxophonist Karl Jenkins (who also wrote the lion's share of the material) and drummer John Marshall. But the general consensus is that keyboardist Mike Ratledge, bassist Hugh Hopper, saxophonist/occasional pianist Elton Dean and drummer/singer Robert Wyatt, who recorded—with and without the assistance of occasional guests—the now-classic Third (Columbia, 1970) and the even more challenging Fourth (Columbia, 1971), were the "classic lineup.

Marshall joined the band for the second half of Fifth (Columbia, 1972), and so had the opportunity—albeit briefly, to play with both Hopper and Dean. But by the time Etheridge joined the band in 1975 to replace Holdsworth—who had departed with virtually no notice to join drummer Tony Williams' New Lifetime band—only Ratledge remained, and in a significantly diminished role.

Ratledge would ultimately disappear from the music scene entirely, while Wyatt—paralyzed from the waist down due to an unfortunate accident, would continue on to fashion a highly-lauded career as a singer/songwriter on albums including Rock Bottom (Virgin, 1974) and Cuckooland (Hannibal, 2003). Hopper and Dean, while building their own divergent discographies—Hopper being generally more concerned with form and Dean with total freedom—worked together often in the ensuing years, in projects that didn't so much exploit the Soft Machine name as it did the improvisational spirit of the group, ranging from Soft Head and Soft Heap in the '70s to the more recent Soft Bounds. Each group had its own complexion, but each capitalized on the artistic tension between Hopper and Dean's natural dispositions. Hopper was certainly more than capable of playing free and Dean had no difficulties working with form, but it was when the two got together that the real magic occurred.

So when Moonjune Records' Leonardo Pavkovic approached Hopper, Dean, Marshall and Holdworth to create a new group based around the jazz/rock spirit of Soft Machine in 2002, the result was Soft Works. But while the resulting album, Abracadabra (Moonjune, 2003) had its moments, Holdsworth's perfectionist tendencies—and the fact that he mixed the album on his own—sucked much of the life out of what should have and could have been a truly remarkable band—as was born out by their live performances. There's a live album in the can at this point, but whether or not it will ever be released is still uncertain.

With Holdsworth living in the US and the rest of the band in Europe, matters were further complicated. So, in a repeat of 1975, Etheridge was recruited to replace Holdsworth, and the band's name was changed to Soft Machine Legacy. The group's first release—last year's Live in Zaandam (Moonjune, 2005)—was a strong outing that demonstrated more fire than Soft Works, despite it being a recording from one of the group's earliest shows.

The imminent release of the band's first studio album, The Soft Machine Legacy (Moonjune, 2006) is a bittersweet accomplishment. Here's a band that finally appears to have the momentum to be an ongoing concern—two records with the identical line-up was unheard of in the original Soft Machine. But tragically, Dean passed away in February, 2006, only two months after a series of dates that have culminated in the DVD release, New Morning—The Paris Concert. But both the CD—to be released in the US in August—and the DVD are, at least, fitting tributes to Dean—an artist who, like the rest of Soft Machine's many alumni, has maintained more of a cult following than any kind of large-scale success.

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