Soft Machine: NDR Jazz Workshop - Hamburg, Germany May 17, 1973

John Kelman By

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Soft Machine
NDR Jazz Workshop: Hamburg, Germany May 17, 1973
Cuneiform Records

Every year it seems that more archive material is unearthed from Soft Machine, the legendary British group that began life in Dadaist psychedelia, but wound down as a powerhouse, chops-centric, fusion outfit at the end of the 1970s, with stops in more complex writing and free jazz territory along the way. As influenced by minimalist composers such as Terry Riley as it was by trumpeter Miles Davis' electric jazz proclivities, the majority of live material issued during the noughties has focused on the classic lineup of the early 1970s, surrounding the group's Third (Sony, 1970) and Fourth (Sony, 1971). Live recordings have been found from other incarnations, but what makes the CD/DVD combo of NDR Jazz Workshop: Hamburg, Germany May 17, 1973 so important is its first-ever live documentation the quartet responsible for Seven (Sony, 1973).

When bassist Hugh Hopper left the group after the double-LP set (one live, one studio) Six (Sony, 1973), the group came increasingly under the influence of keyboardist/reed man Karl Jenkins—who had replaced another "classic" alum, saxophonist/pianist Elton Dean following Fifth (Sony, 1972). Jenkins, himself an alum of another early British fusion outfit, Nucleus, brought a more riff-driven approach to the writing, in contrast to founding keyboardist (and only remaining original member) Mike Ratledge's denser, more idiosyncratically arranged compositions. Drummer John Marshall—another Nucleus recruit who replaced founding drummer Robert Wyatt after a brief dalliance with Australian drummer Phil Howard on the early sessions for Fifth—brought greater virtuosity to the group, making its gradual move to fusion powerhouse nearly complete. But it was Hopper's replacement—the more rhythm section-focused, six-string bassist Roy Babbington—who in many ways positioned Soft Machine for its most successful and impressive post-"classic lineup" disc, the guitar-heavy Bundles (Harvest, 1975), featuring a relatively young and unknown Allan Holdsworth.

Recorded a month before sessions for Seven began, the majority of NDR Jazz Workshop's material is culled from Six, but what differentiates this set from others featuring Jenkins—such as Softstage: BBC In Concert 1972 (Hux, 2005)—is the inclusion of all the material from Six's studio disc, where each member wrote a track (in the case of the fiery "Stanley Stamp's Gibbon Album," a collaboration between Marshall and Ratledge). Even Hopper's swan song—the dark, oblique and tapeloop-driven "1983"—shows up as an audio-only bonus on the DVD, with the late bassist making a guest appearance in a performance also notable for the inclusion of Isotope guitarist Gary Boyle and saxophonist Art Themenin the second half of the performance. Jenkins' hypnotic, twin-electric piano-driven "The Soft Weed Factor" only appears on the DVD, but both "Stanley Stamp's" and Ratledge's gentle ballad, "Chloe and the Pirates," can be found on both discs.

What's perhaps most notable about this particular incarnation of Soft Machine at this particular moment in time is that free improvisations were still a part of the picture, largely used as transitional segues between composed pieces. "Link 1" and "2"—edited together on the CD, but actually bracketing "The Soft Weed Factor" on the DVD—are respectively minimalist-informed and aggressively jagged, leading to Ratledge's riff-based "37 ½." By Seven, Soft Machine would become a group largely focusing on solos in the context of predefined form, but here its earlier, freer disposition still holds partial sway.

While there is existing video footage of earlier Soft Machine performances, the 70-minute video footage of NDR Jazz Workshop represents some of the clearest to date, sans the visual effects of, say, Grides (Cuneiform, 2006). Instead, the camera work is as direct as Soft Machine was gradually becoming, as the core quartet gradually pulled away from the expressionistic freedom of only a year or two previous.

Boyle hasn't gone down in the books as a guitarist of great significance—the way Holdsworth or his eventual replacement, John Etheridge have—but as an example of early 1970s fusion guitar, he makes a surprisingly strong showing here, especially on the up-tempo, pedal-tone-driven "Stumble," where clear articulation and rapid-fire picking make for some of the disc's most exciting moments. And it's great to see the normally staid and unmoving Ratledge as down and funky with his bad self as he'd ever get, on a brighter-tempo'd version of his groove-driven "Gesolrut" that, again, features an extended and impressive solo from Boyle and an even more visceral turn from Themen. In fact, if any member of Soft Machine is eligible for "most disinterested- looking participant" award, it's Jenkins, who—whether playing saxophones, oboe, electric piano or recorder, as he does on an early version of the slow-pulsed "Down the Road," heard on the CD only, and the only track that would eventually land on Seven—barely lifts an eyebrow throughout. There are those who would place the responsibility/blame for Soft Machine's evolution (some would say devolution) towards a clearer fusion sound firmly at Jenkins' feet but, while he would never become as respected an improviser as Dean, he's in very good form here.

Similarly, Babbington would never establish as distinctive a reputation as Hopper, but this busy session musician (then and subsequently) sure knew how to hold down a groove—an important distinction for what Soft Machine had become by this time, since Marshall's strength was a visceral combination of big sound, big ideas and big fills. Still, even Marshall's propensity for busier playing didn't detract from the core pulse, as he plays it relatively simple on "The Soft Weed Factor," but takes a powerful and limb- challenging solo of clear construction on "One Across."

As the only existing live documentation of this particular incarnation of the ever-changing Soft Machine (no two albums featured the exact same lineup), NDR Jazz Workshop: Hamburg, Germany May 17, 1973 would be an important enough find. Most significant, however, is that it more clearly positions a line-up often considered, based on Seven, as nothing more than the transitional and, perhaps, incomplete group that only truly found itself again with the recruitment of Holdsworth for Bundles. While the majority of NDR Jazz Workshop does, certainly, feature a larger, guitar-heavy setting that foreshadows what was to come, the opening set that features the quartet alone makes clear that this was, indeed, a version of Soft Machine with its own strengths and inimitable charm.

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).

Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: Cuneiform Records | Style: Fusion/Progressive Rock

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