Soft Machine-y Round-Up: Soft Machine Legacy, Elton Dean & The Wrong Object & Delta Saxophone Quartet

Martin Longley By

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Soft Machine Legacy

Elton Dean & The Wrong Object
The Unbelievable Truth

Delta Saxophone Quartet
Dedicated to You...But You Weren't Listening — The Music of Soft Machine

Soft Machine really does have an ongoing, extended legacy and its principal conductor nowadays is Moonjune Records, operated out of New York by the evangelical prog rock obsessive Leonardo Pakovic. It has become an occupation to anticipate which new angle of homage he will discover next.

Soft Machine Legacy continues to tour regularly, even though suffering the blow of a prematurely departed Elton Dean, who died two years ago this month. His replacement, Theo Travis, is the natural choice, this saxophonist having become a key inheritor of the jazz-prog form, via his stint in Gong, collaboration with Robert Fripp and now, in joining these three old members of Soft Machine to record Steam. The original crew from the Canterbury scene are guitarist John Etheridge, bassman Hugh Hopper and drummer John Marshall, who collectively span several eras in the band's '60s-70s evolution. Now, though, they place great emphasis on the fact that, although rooted in the band of old, this is what they're doing now: composing new material, improvising with fresh unpredictability and continuing the evolution. Their orientation is certainly not to reproduce old numbers from three decades ago. Well, they'll occasionally do this, as with their reading of "Chloe & The Pirates from 1973's Six album.

The new pieces on Steam are fairly equally divided between Hopper, Etheridge and Travis, or all four players when the improvisation's in full flow. The Softs are relishing a peak right now, with some of these tracks burning with a molten core, the band's textures certainly refusing to smooth out with age and experience. Here, they still sound like they're eager to mine new techniques, with Travis, Etheridge and Hopper all extending their sonic reach via electronic aids. With their looping, fuzzed distortion and spatial echoes, it sometimes becomes unclear who's transmitting which layer of matter. By this point, Soft Machine Legacy are very removed from their sound(s) of yore. The band was always committed to change anyway, even if this was enforced by the switching of personnel. By the time that the opening "Footloose climaxes, its already caught hold of a fevered groove, then "The Big Man begins with what can only be called a punk riff, setting off an electro-tweaked solo by Travis. Another hedonistic pitch is attained, as Etheridge takes flight. The above-mentioned "Chloe & The Pirates is about the only tune included that allows a settling down into lyrical calm.

Saxophonist Elton Dean had less than four months left to live when he guested at the October 2005 Paris concert that's now released as The Unbelievable Truth. He was playing his first gig with The Wrong Object, a Belgian quintet who, besides specializing in Frank Zappa repertoire, also do a good impersonation of Soft Machine. Despite a complete absence of rehearsal (at least within shared walls), the teaming was viewed at the time as an exciting beginning for an ongoing collaboration. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case. Dean grabs most of the soloing space, with tenor man Fred Delplancq and trumpeter Jean-Paul Estiévenart largely confining themselves to thematic blowing. Guitarist Michel Delville is the main sparring partner, infusing his licks with a scaly roughness, seething with a compulsive ugliness. Dean solos for long stretches and with serpentine invention, the entire combo really hitting their stride by the title track, about halfway through the disc. Here, they marry jazz, funk and rock on equal terms, before moving into "A Cannery Catastrophe , a Zappa-esque contortion, followed by "Cunnimingus Redux , the most 'conventionally' jazzy piece, even though it's still punctuated by some foul-smelling guitar-work.

The Delta Saxophone Quartet are the furthest removed from their source originals, even though Dedicated To You...But You Weren't Listening directly addresses the Soft Machine songbook. Inviting six arrangers to reshape the classic oeuvre for a saxophone foursome, the Deltas have ended up with a diverse set of impressionistic results, slanted as opposed to literal, from harmonious chamber flotations to scrabbling, electrically-doctored rabbles. It's this very balance that makes the album so attractive. There is real reason to retread old ground when the source material is being so utterly revivified. Morgan Fisher is the best-known of the arrangers and he contributes voice, hurdy gurdy and electronics to "Outrageous Moon , which is one of the most striking interpretations. His non-corporeal vocal declamations vie with a treated saxophone solo that manages to fuse the mangled sound of a virtual bass, guitar and organ composite into a micro-Soft Machine homage. Hugh Hopper guests on his own "Facelift , though his bass and loops are a subtle presence. Several chapters lead from abstraction to dense riff-structures, eventually introducing electronics, spreading frosted textures.

All of these albums display a fondness for a past output that isn't compromised by predictable interpretations. In all three cases, the root material acts as a launching pad for further explorations.

Tracks and Personnel


Tracks: Footloose; The Steamer; The Big Man; Chloe & The Pirates; In The Back Room; The Last Day; Firefly; So English; Dave Acto; Anything To Anywhere.

Personnel: John Etheridge: electric guitar; Hugh Hopper: bass guitar, loops; John Marshall: drums, percussion; Theo Travis: tenor & soprano sax, flute, loops.

The Unbelievable Truth

Tracks: Seven For Lee; Millennium (The Wrong Object); Baker's Treat; The Unbelievable Truth; A Cannery Catastrophe; Cunnimingus Redux; The Basho Variations.

Personnel: Elton Dean: alto sax, saxello; Jean-Paul Estievenart: trumpet; Fred Delplancq: tenor sax; Michel Delville: guitar, Voice; Damien Polard: bass; Laurent Delchambre: drums, assorted percussion.

Dedicated to You...But You Weren't Listening — The Music of Soft Machine

Tracks: Dedicated; Facelift; Somehow With the Passage of Time...Kings & Queens 33 Years Later; Mousetrap; Everything is You; To; Outrageous Moon; Aubade; Noisette; Floating World; You; The Tale of Taliesin; Dedicated to You; Epilogue.

Personnel: Graeme Blevins: soprano saxophone; Chris Caldwell: baritone saxophone; Tim Holmes: tenor saxophone; Pete Whyman: alto saxophone; Hugh Hopper: electric bass guitar and loops (2); Morgan Fisher: vocals, hurdy gurdy and background electronics (7).

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