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Monday, March 16, 2015

Soft Machine - Switzerland 1974 / Hugh Hopper - Memories Box Set

Soft Machine - Switzerland 1974 (Cuneiform, 2015) ****

By Paul Acquaro

I feel I owe a good deal of thanks to Soft Machine - it was many years ago now that Third blew my mind and led me circuitously to the tangentially related El Skid, which just led me deeper and deeper. My collection is now well stocked with Soft Machine, various Soft Heap and Head projects, and select pickings of the greater Canterbury scene.

Notorious for their changing lineup, 1974 saw Soft Machine competing their transformation from an avant-garde rock-jazz quartet to a Fusion jazz-rock quintet (you can see a nice chart of the line ups here). In fact, the albums Bundles and its follow-up Softs had some real biting guitar work from Allan Holdsworth and his successor John Etheridge - this from a band that had been more linked with the reedy bite of the organ and Elton Dean’s endlessly riveting saxophone work. The only member of the original band at this time was organist Mike Ratledge, though drummer John Marshall had joined a few years earlier after Robert Wyatt had left the group. Hugh Hopper's (fuzz) bass was replaced by Roy Babbington and his six string electric, and Dean by composer/keyboardist/woodwind player Karl Jenkins - both of whom, along with Holdsworth and Marshall, had been with Ian Carr's Nucleus at some point. So, it was this line up Jenkins, Ratledge, Babbington, Holdsworth, and Marshall, about  to record the seminal fusion album Bundles, who appear on this DVD release. 

That year at Switzerland's Montreux festival, the line up was heavy on the jazz-rock: along with Soft Machine was Billy Cobham’s Spectrum,  Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House, and John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra  - a mouthwatering line-up 41 years later! Of this Soft Machine recording, I've certainly seen snippets of it on YouTube but to my knowledge, the whole set hasn't been available to date, and even if it had, it would have not looked and sounded so good. Cuneiform did a great job cleaning up and repairing the old tapes - the instruments are nicely separated and balanced and the video is as crisp as video is from the early 1970s. It’s fair to note that there are places where the audio quality changes or has some distortion at the edges, and as Cuneiform explains there were limitations to how much restoration could be done. 

The  repertoire is fairly well document and can basically be heard on the Floating World Live release from Moonjune Records, and most selections ended up on Bundles, but there are also some group improvisations and a medley from Sixth and Seventh. Following Holdsworth's vocalizations on Floating World is the nice solo piece ‘Ealing Comedy' from Babbington featuring some now classic effects.  Ratledge and Marshall do an electronics/percussion duet that is both ahead of and right on time. It is a pleasure just to see the technology - the videographers focused in on some of the knobs, lights, and other fine looking things. It’s also great to see a young Allan Holdsworth making flawless transitions and delivering some lightning speed runs.  

As a follow up to the NDR Jazz Workshop CD/DVD package from a couple years back, this is another excellent document of the group from one of it’s many creative peaks.

Hugh Hopper - Memories (Gonzo Media, 2014) ****

Hugh Hopper was the original bassist of Soft Machine, and had left the band by the time the '74 concert (he can be seen briefly in the NDR Jazzworkshp concert from 1973, but by then he was just stopping by to run experimental tape loops).

Memories is a box set or a series from Gonzo Media is releasing what will ultimately become a 10 CD set of archival recordings of Hopper’s work from his pre-Soft Machine early works from the mid-1960s to the more recent incarnations of his Franglo-Dutch bands and other collaborations. Hopper had a long career after Soft Machine and worked with Carla Bley, Elton Dean, Gary Windo, Lol Coxhill, Nick Evans, John Marshall, Robert Wyatt, Keith Tippett, Joe Gallivan and many others. He had also spent time towards the end of his life working with a rekindled Soft Machine Legacy led by guitarist John Etheridge. Hopper sadly passed away from Leukemia in 2009.

The box set collects the uncollected and the set I am referencing here today includes:
  • 2014: Volume 1: Memories (collection)
  • 2014: Volume 2: Frangloband (Triton Club, Paris, 2004)
  • 2014: Volume 3: North & South (with Mike Travis, Aberdeen, 1995)
  • 2014: Volume 4: Four by Hugh by Four (Bimhuis, Amsterdam, 2000)
Vol 1 has some nice spoken word intros and stories from Hopper, and the first song is the jazz inflected 'Memories', composed by Hopper in the 1960s and sung by Robert Wyatt. It then skips ahead quite a bit forward to the work that Hopper was doing in the early aughts with 'Was a Friend' - a quiet raga-esque piece. He also visits some of his post-Soft Machine music like 'Sliding Dogs' and 'Miniluv' with the same group. Across the discs, we hear Soft Machine classics like 'Facelift' and many versions of his selections from 1984 and Monster Band, and it is rather interesting to hear the songs played by the different groups, at different tempos and with different approaches. Hopper's bass playing provides a bridge between the rock and jazz worlds, for example, his rendition of “Wanglo Saxon” on Vol 3 with Mike Travis, fuses a rather straight ahead jazz rhythm section with a extended fuzz bass solo. 

I could rattle on and on about each album, but would rather leave it that the Memories set is as a real treat for Hopper and Soft Machine fans.


Colin Green said...

I saw this line-up at the time, which I think was touring to promote “Bundles” and represented a significant change in direction, almost certainly influenced by the Mahavishnu Orchestra. It might be difficult to appreciate now, but that band and McLaughlin and Cobham in particular, were like a thunderclap at the time, and the guitar replaced the saxophone in Jazz-Rock.

It was the mark two version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra that played at Montreux that year, which never really reached the heights of its predecessor. Indeed, as Colin Harper says in his recent biography: “Bathed in Lightning: John Mclaughlin, the 60s and the Emerald Beyond”, fusion as a genre probably reached its zenith with the original version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Thankfully, Holdsworth manages to sound like himself, unlike many guitarists at the time who sounded like poor imitations of Mclaughlin. And I once overheard John Etheridge say that he never really liked the Mahavishnu Orchestra, before he went off to have a pre-gig meal at McDonalds.