Soft Works – Abracadabra in Osaka
Recorded live at Namba Hatch, Osaka, Japan, 11 August 2003
(MoonJune MJR 112. CD Review by John Bungey)
To my knowledge no one has ever made Soft Machine their specialist subject in the 45 series so far of Mastermind. Which is a shame, given the potential for head-scratching generated by a Soft Machine family tree that’s vaster, more tangled and multi-branched than that of almost any other modern music ensemble.
You could have fun compiling questions about these pioneers of psychedelic jazz-rock: eg,
– Which former member had a Top 30 hit with a cover of a Monkees song? *
– Or…which former member was in 2015 voted the most popular living composer in Classic FM’s Ultimate Hall of Fame? **
– Or even…which of Soft Machine’s approx 22 line-ups was the greatest? ***
OK, we haven’t got all day for that one (see answers below). To add to the complexity, potentially one of the great line-ups – the one featured here – did not even trade under the name Soft Machine. Members of Soft Works, a tentative reunion of the early 2000s, evidently did not feel qualified to use the full moniker (see also Soft Heap, Soft Ware, Soft Mountain …) Still, it’s a classic quartet: Allan Holdsworth, the thinking man’s guitar hero; Elton Dean, sounding Coltrane-ish on alto sax and saxello; John Marshall, a brilliant jazz-rock drummer, and Hugh Hopper, spicing his unshowy bass-playing with silvery runs. Each had played in versions of Soft Machine from 1969 to 1975 but never all together. Soft Works released the well-received album Abracadabra in 2003 and this set is taken from soundboard tapes at one of the mere 11 shows they played before Holdsworth returned to his busy solo career. The sound quality is mostly excellent thanks to some inspired digital restoration.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for such a short-lived unit, some pieces have fairly simple structures – mid-tempo modal grooves as vehicles for lavish soloing. The urgent pulse of Seven Formerly does though make an impressive opening shot. Has Riff is indeed just that; its doomy four-note fulcrum, seemingly from the Black Sabbath playbook, extended over seven minutes. Most material is from the Abracadabra album, plus Soft Machine oldies – a fierce Face Lift and slightly disappointing Kings & Queens (Dean sounds unfocused). He’s much better on the Coltrane homage First Trane, where Marshall uses brushes and the band almost swings. Baker’s Treat shows off a gentler side. Throughout the album Marshall’s playing is immense – a British answer to Tony Williams – huge power or subtle shading as required.
Many people, though, will come to this album for Holdsworth. He combines the rock guitarist’s love of volume and attack with jazz harmony. Flurries of notes swoop and soar in dramatic crescendos. Unlike some wielders of new tech, he plays his cutting-edge SynthAxe guitar with taste as well as skill and, crucially, he usually knows when it’s time to stop.
In a straight fight I’d take the line-up’s studio album – more concise and, inevitably, more polished. The sold-out crowd at the Namba Hatch hall in Osaka, however, witnessed an impressive show. There are longueurs and sometimes you feel you’re hearing a superior jazz version of a jam band rather than a fully fledged musical unit, but there’s some magic too. If only Holdsworth had hung around a little longer…
* Robert Wyatt, who covered I’m a Believer in 1974
** Karl Jenkins, although oddly Land of Cockayne, the most Jenkins-heavy Soft Machine release is many fans’ least favourite
*** OK, cards on table: Mike Ratledge, Elton Dean, Robert Wyatt, Hugh Hopper
LINK: Abracadabra in Osaka on Bandcamp for purchase of stream, or CD or vinyl, with sleeve-note, interviews…