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( 2CD, Cuneiform Records)
Prolusion. SOFT MACHINE, from England, is undoubtedly one of the best as well as most influential jazz fusion bands, albeit its early ‘70s work stretches far beyond the genre’s frontiers. “Live in Germany ‘73” was filmed and recorded on May 17, 1973, all courtesy of Hamburg’s NDR and the legendary Jazz Workshop program, hence the release’s main – obviously odd – title, “NDR Jazz Workshop”. This reissue was restored (and probably remastered as well) from analog audio and video tapes.
TRACK LIST: 1. Fanfare 0:48 2. All White 3:38 3. Link 1/Link 2 6:04 4. 37 1/2 6:31 5. Link 3 0:47 6. Riff 3:51 7. Down the Road 10:41 8. Link 3a 1:00 9. Stanley Stamp’s Gibbon Album 4:47 10. Chloe and the Pirates 8:34 11. Gesolreut 11:48 12. EPV 3:34 13. Link 4 3:35 14. Stumble 6:55 15. One Across 6:10 16. Riff II 1:08 LINEUP: Mike Ratledge – el. piano, organ John Marshall – drums Roy Babbington – bass Karl Jenkins – oboe, recorder, saxophones; keyboard With: Art Themen – saxophones (7 to 16) Gary Boyle – guitar (7 to 16)
Analysis. “Live in Germany ‘73” is almost merely a rehash of the band’s “Six” album from the same year. What’s the difference? Save the fact that the video of the concert is now available, as a DVD, a series of short pieces bearing the word Link as their basic title has been added to the affected set of tracks. Okay, let’s imagine that “Six” has fallen into oblivion or even doesn’t exist and view the hero of this occasion as a missed link in Soft Machine’s early-to-mid-‘70s period of work, beginning with changes in the band’s overall playing, which are caused by changes in its lineup. The appearance of Karl Jenkins has allowed the band to let two sets of keyboards carry the main weight of melody and harmony. Hugh Hopper was replaced by Roy Babbington on bass, but the instrument still remains an alternative lead voice. Just like Hugh, Roy is a bassist who doesn’t content himself to being the bottom end. That being said, drummer John Marshall is all over the drum kit with its gongs, triangles and other components. Karl only from time to time switches to wind instruments, but the brass section (previously courtesy of Elton Dean) isn’t omitted, due to the presence of saxophonist Art Themen, no matter that the man isn’t included in Soft Machine’s official lineup. The playing of another guest musician, Gary Boyle, can be regarded as a new voice in the band’s sound, bearing in mind that – save the debut one – none of its previous albums deployed a guitar. Three of the recording’s sixteen tracks, All White, 37 1/2 and Stanley Stamp’s Gibbon Album, echo the outfit’s early-‘70s work. To my mind, Mike Ratledge sounds here as if he has a neoclassical background. His electric piano playing is at once complex and full of elegancy, which contrasts effectively with Karl’s distorted, guitar-like approach, as well as with the other instruments, whose solos are all vectored differently, too. As a result, we get a true ensemble sound, adventurous and highly compelling, often a chamber rock-evoking one. Despite being short, Fanfare and Riff II (the album’s opening and closing track respectively), are both full-blown, dynamically evolving compositions. Link 1-2, Link 4, Chloe and the Pirates and EPV are in turn slowly developing pieces, and yet they’re rather interesting as well, all coming with a subtle sense of avant-garde. The rest of the material doesn’t evoke anything from the band’s early-‘70s work. Down the Road and Stumble are classic (or rather conventional) jazz rock creations, where keyboards, woodwinds and/or brasses improvise over a few prepared themes-riffs, which are provided by the guitar, bass and drums. Gesolreut begins and develops in a similar way, but this track has a culmination: soon after its imaginary equator it finds all of the musicians jamming together, at times subtly accelerating their pace. (One may say that Mike’s electric piano passages evoke those by Chick Corea in delivery, albeit I personally think that it was Mr. Ratledge who pioneered the implied technique and that Chick became using a similar approach only when he has formed Return To Forever.) Riff is a jazz rock piece too, though on the other hand it can easily be stated that it is overall just what its title suggests: a single keyboard riff that, being repeated over and over again, runs all through it as a basis for other instruments’ improvisations. Thankfully, the riff is quite complex in construction, lasting for about 20 seconds, so there is comparatively enough place for the band to make the whole entity sound, well, comparatively diverse. Performed by John Marshall, One Across is, of course, a drum solo, which would’ve been too long had it not been a traditional jazz rock concert feature. Finally, Link 3 and Link 3a are both short keyboard miniatures.
DVD (105 min)
The main value of this release is that it features the DVD of Soft Machine’s “Live in Germany ‘73” concert, providing quite a fitting closure to the band’s transitional period. It comes highly recommended to those who still don’t have the ensemble on a video, as well as those who prefer its mid and later work to the earlier one. I know for sure that quite a few, if not a lot, of its fans aren’t too much into its “III” and “V” albums, whereas I personally like those most of all, regretting that the band turned to a more accessible sound in 1973.
VM=Vitaly Menshikov: May 21 & 22, 2011
Conclusion. The main value of this release is that it features the DVD of Soft Machine’s “Live in Germany ‘73” concert, providing quite a fitting closure to the band’s transitional period. It comes highly recommended to those who still don’t have the ensemble on a video, as well as those who prefer its mid and later work to the earlier one. I know for sure that quite a few, if not a lot, of its fans aren’t too much into its “III” and “V” albums, whereas I personally like those most of all, regretting that the band turned to a more accessible sound in 1973.
VM=Vitaly Menshikov: May 21 & 22, 2011
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