Developing The Legacy
Although Soft Machine hasn't been a working band for a few decades the ex-members have a habit of re-uniting in various configurations, sometimes borrowing the 'Soft' element as part of the new band name, hence Soft Heap, Soft Head and now Soft Works. This latest line-up features a quartet of ex-Softs dating from their heyday through to their final spent days when they'd lost all identity and creativity.
So we have Elton Dean, surely a national treasure, the real 'Sir Elton', a man who should be taken to gigs in a chauffeur-driven limo. He just gets better. Standing tall beside him is the undisputed master of the fuzz bass and other types of bass too, Hugh Hopper. I used think he was in his prime around the time of Soft Machine's third and fourth studio albums. But no, he too just keeps on pursuing the path of excellence.
Whatever his impeccable credentials as a jazz drummer I only really recall John Marshall's place in Soft Machine as the time-keeper on the dullest of their albums , i.e. 6 and 7, laying down pedestrian rhythms behind the spluttering and farting that passed for solos by Karl Jenkins. And Allan Holdsworth was only ever a fleeting member, a journeyman soloist on 'Bundles', replacing the spiky organ solos of Mike Ratledge, one ex-Soft who still seems keen on maintaining his long silence. Holdsworth soon bailed out and left the guitar spot open for John Etheridge to fill. Nevertheless both guitarist and drummer fit in superbly in this latest line-up making it a perfectly balanced unit of four players working together.
And what of the music ? Well, the promo material talks of the Soft Machine legacy so I suppose many will be expecting some shade of jazz-rock. Actually, this is far more inclined to jazz, with compositions that draw on their composers' sense of melody and shape. So, no tricky time signatures or labyrinthine themes in evidence here. They've chosen material that showcases the strengths of each musician. Inevitably, some of the strongest solo playing comes from Dean, as torrentially melodic and resourceful as ever but with a clarity of purpose and a power that is just enough to make a listener sit up and think 'That's what jazz solos should be like'. There is no extraneous noodling or running off at the reed. He plays with a concentrated focus, especially on his and Marshall's 'Seven Formerly' where he is driven subtly by Marshall's crisp, precise rhythms. Holdsworth also pulls off a typically fluid and eloquent solo. Dean further wields his axe with equal authority on what sounds like one of Hopper's best compositions to date, 'First Trane'. It's a relaxed affair with Holdsworth's liquid chords shifting around the lyrical sax. This is a tune that should become a classic of the on-going Softs catalogue.
Dean contributes other pieces which have seen outings on his album, 'Moorsong'. The latest versions of 'Baker's Treat' and 'Willie's Knee' though are abbreviated somewhat due to the absence of Alex Maguire's Hammond organ. The former has a similar classic feel to it, a slow burning ballad that allows that sinuous alto to explore and discover every nuance of the melody. Once again Holdsworth's clean, sustained lines sing out. I hope he chooses to work further in this context, with these guys and Dean in particular. Another excellent duo is that of Hopper and Dean on the opening to their re-working of Phil Miller's old tune 'Calyx' re-titled here as 'K-Licks'. The fuzz bass gets a brief airing too on this take which brings out a certain tension I've not heard before during the numerous years of its existence. Like any tune worth revisiting and reviving it still has undiscovered potential.
Odd though it may seem, I feel that this band collectively has plenty of that potential too, if this cd is anything to go by. They had little rehearsal time and the tunes are first takes with some later overdubs from Holdsworth but it sounds as though they are at the beginning of some new phase rather than several decades down the road. It should be a treat both for Softs lovers and anyone new to the work of these veteran Brit jazzers.
© 2003 Paul Donnelly