It’s many years since, to all intents and purposes, I lost interest in the Soft Machine. One by one, the early members — Daevid Allen, Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper — dropped away, taking their various eccentricities and my enthusiasm with them. Left behind was a constantly shifting corpus of musicians who, for all their individual qualities, didn’t seem to amount to much more than just another jazz-rock band, taking advantage of the mileage left in the name.
And it’s the old conundrum, going back to Theseus’s ship or the woodsman’s axe. Or whichever football club you happen to support. If, over the years, all the components are replaced, is it the same ship, axe or football club?
So when the latest album by the group currently calling itself Soft Machine arrived in the post, I played it out of nothing more mild curiosity, prepared to hit the eject button as soon as the twiddling-and-noodling quotient was exceeded. To my surprise, I found myself listening all the way through with increasing interest and enjoyment. And then playing it again. For the past couple of weeks it’s been a fairly constant companion.
It’s a live set, recorded in February 2019 by the present line-up — John Marshall on drums, Roy Babbington on bass guitar, John Etheridge on guitar and Theo Travis on soprano and tenor saxophones, flute and Fender Rhodes piano — at a Los Angeles jazz club called the Baked Potato, located on Cahuenga Boulevard, just the other side of the Hollywood Freeway from Universal Studios, and owned by the pianist Don Randi, once of the Wrecking Crew. The Softs’ changes of personnel over the decades would challenge even Pete Frame, compiler of all those celebrated Rock Family Trees. For those who haven’t been keeping up, it’s enough to mention that Marshall joined in 1972, replacing Phil Howard, who had replaced Wyatt in 1970; Babbington arrived as Hopper’s replacement the following year; Etheridge joined in 2004 (see note **), and Travis two years later. In the past, I believe, there have been problems over the use of the name; until quite recently they were unappetisingly billed as Soft Machine Legacy.
The set list is a good mixture of ancient and modern, beginning with Ratledge’s “Out-Bloody-Rageous” (first heard on Third in 1970), given a keyboard intro by Travis which recalls the Softs’ early interest in Terry Riley’s keyboard improvisations. Ratledge’s more fusion-y “The Man Who Waved at Trains” is also present, as is Hopper’s moody “Kings and Queens”, a feature for Travis’s attractively Charles Lloyd-ish flute. The Karl Jenkins era is represented by “Hazard Profile Pt 1” and “The Tale of Taliesin”, both reminders of how effective a musical organiser the Welshman could be in this kind of context.
Marshall contributes “Sideburn”, a two-minute drum solo showing the fine touch he always possessed, and there are two pieces from Etheridge and three from Travis, mostly operating in stylistic terms within a triangle formed by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, mid-’70s King Crimson and the Pat Metheny Group. Which is where I would normally take my leave, except that here there’s no sense of the sort of self-indulgence to which so many excellent musicians — particularly guitarists — were prone during the bad old days of the jazz-rock fusion.
All the pieces here are concise and well formed, and all the solos have substance. Etheridge’s “Heart Off Guard” is another vignette: a gentle study for guitar and soprano that slides into his lovely “Broken Hill”. His solo on the circling and rising chord pattern of “Hazard Profile” is genuinely lyrical and emotionally involving. Travis’s flute is again outstanding on his own “Fourteen Hour Dream” (its title surely a nod to the group’s origins in London’s psychedelic scene), where the supportive excellence of Babbington also takes the ear.
So there it is. There may be no pataphysical ramblings or “Moon in June”-style fantasias emanating from this group trading under the hallowed name, nor a sense of a continuing need to stretch boundaries, but it’s a pleasure to discover that I was wrong to write them off. Maybe I’ll have to trawl through their extensive back catalogue from the decades when I was looking the other way. But even if there isn’t time for that, this is a nice surprise.
** As several people have kindly pointed out, John Etheridge first joined the Softs in 1975, replacing Allan Holdsworth. See? I told you I hadn’t been paying attention.