Near Perfect
SOFT MACHINE (and Heavy Friends) : BBC In Concert 1971. (Hux Records. HUX.067)
In one of my versions of a perfect world Soft Machine are still gigging, with more or less the classic quartet line-up, occasionally joined by those luminaries from their past whose instrumental prowess earned them a place in the front line. They even come to play in Liverpool before a rapturous, sell out audience and I finally get to see them ‘live’, something, inexplicably, I never managed to do when I had the chance. Meanwhile back in the less than perfect world…..

There has been a plethora of material made available to demonstrate what a fine improvising band Soft Machine were during their several creative heydays. Such documents are vital in providing listeners with the ‘live’ existence of the band, as opposed to the studio releases that came out when they were still an active unit. A more complete and representative picture is thereby produced.

This cd, however, is different because it is not simply another slab of unearthed performance. Its place in the catalogue is, in fact, entirely unique, because of the augmented and fragmented nature of the line-up and its approaches to the music. This includes the presence of the so-called ‘heavy friends’. The term is used by the late, much missed John Peel in his introduction to the concert and refers to the very different musicians, like drummer Phil Howard and legendary tenor saxophonist Ronnie Scott, who came on to lend their individual musicianship to the band throughout the gig. There were other Softs ‘irregulars’ there too, such as Mark Charig on cornet and double bassist Roy Babbington, who was later to become a full-time member. What the addition of these voices amounts to is a forceful demonstration of a dynamic live band identifying some of the directions that the members were pulling in.

For instance the opening track ‘Blind Badger’ actually features saxophonist Elton Dean with his quartet, plus Mike Ratledge on piano as the other Softs presence. Dean is obviously at home in this setting with Howard’s drumming clearly emphasising the saxman’s own free music leanings. Bassist Neville Whitehead stands out as a subtle and melodic player in the ensemble, his playing is still clearly propulsive, supple and focussed in the midst of Charig and Dean’s improvisations. It’s a shame that he seems to have vanished since.

For the second track, ‘Neo-Caliban Grides’ we are back to Soft Machine but with Howard sharing drum duties with Robert Wyatt. Here it is possible to hear the tensions as Howard builds up torrents of rhythm, driving Dean further into territory he embraced with a passion as Ratledge sounds less assured. It is also exciting to hear Howard and Wyatt drumming together, the only instance I know of. What a combination they would have been as the Softs’ regular drum duo. But that was not to be, for reasons that have been well documented elsewhere.

The next large section of the concert is devoted to the quartet format and features familiar material such as ‘Out Bloody Rageous’, the unrecorded ‘Eamonn Andrews’ and shorter compositions like ‘All White’ and ‘Kings and Queens’. The playing is still visceral and energetic but it is easy to hear the difference between the direction of these and the opening tracks.

Following this some of the ‘heavy friends’ really make their mark. Mike Ratledge’s ‘Teeth’ is one of the most complex and satisfying pieces in the band’s repertoire and one that deserves the full arrangement it is given here. Babbington’s double bass, Paul Nieman’s trombone and Charig’s cornet add colour and substance to the piece, as does Ronnie Scott whose solo may have taken place in unfamiliar musical circumstances. He nevertheless digs in and acquits himself, though not without some sense of relief when it’s over, according to those who were present. Well, he had said, “Can’t we play a blues?” during rehearsals! Apart from that it is a pure joy to hear the horns collectively commenting against Ratledge’s spiked and edgy organ solo. It is evidence, if it were needed, that this band had the capacity to take jazz/rock composition and improvisation into inspiring and innovative terrain.

The quartet return for an encore of ‘Slightly All The Time/Noisette’ still displaying enough energy to raise the hairs on the back of the neck Overall, it is a performance from a band that is testing the boundaries between form and free playing and, in this case, striking a balance. In many ways this is a perfect Soft Machine cd, spanning as it does the diverse areas that the band pursued and which, ultimately, blew them apart - in the process, depriving me of the opportunity to witness them together on a stage.

© 2005 Paul Donnelly