Soft Machine has always been a byword for excellence even as it underwent a non-stop menu of personnel changes over several decades, inducting an array of highly regarded musicians, some as sit-ins, others as members: Nick Evans, Jack Bruce, Karl Jenkins, John Perry, Alan Holdsworth, Percy Jones, even Jimi Hendrix (briefly appearing in the much sought-after Triple Echoes box set gatherum). Here, co-founder Hugh Hopper (bass) joins with past alums John Marshall (drums) and John Ethridge (guitar) then adds winds player Theo Travis in a Softs follow-on ensemble, Soft Machine Legacy, a combo harking back the founding group's mid-period, the days when luminaries like Holdsworth heralded brisk inventive jazz-rock fusion in the Miles / Corea / Isotope / Passport mold…but with a very distinctive sound that set 'em apart from all others.
The SM ensemble mode always boasted muscular drummers, and Marshall was desired very early on, when, unfortunately, he wasn't available, which providentially led instead to hiring such wondrous percussionists as the-too-briefly resident Phil Howard, heard in Drop (here). John, however, later populated the band's LP output about as much as Robert Wyatt, defining the rhythm section just as the now-wheelchair bound wunderkind had. Here, in Legacy, he demonstrates why the core group indeed held such esteem for him. On the other hand, Theo Travis isn't an Elton Dean, that's impossible, Dean was a hard-core Coltraney guy, but Travis posits a mid-point between Dean and a moody Klaus Doldinger by way of echoes of Urban Sax.
John Ethridge frequently calls to mind John McLaughlin's tenure with Miles, throwing in chords and stutter steps before taking off for starblown solos which then become more Mike Sternish mixed with Gary Boyle, nicely flipping the ambiance obtusely. For the longest time, the Softs decidedly avoided guitar, it being such a dominant presence in fusion elsewise, but later incorporations sidetracked into the mode nicely, Legacy now repeating that evolving sound. Hopper, of course, is always unpredictable. Just when you think he'll zig, he zags, and when some of that old bouncing-ball-cum-Canterbury groundline of his ambles through for a look-see, ya can't but smile and think of highly neglected forums like Gilgamesh and Soft Heap.
Even the slow stuff, like the take on Mike Ratledge's Chloe & the Pirates, definitively recreates the period's grandiloquence while abstracting and morphing one stately shade into another, often enough with dimensional rifts and slo-streams. No matter how you look at it, this business of revivifying aging modes is an important task and efforts like Steam go far to ensure that the mysterious, marvelous, and meritorious are never left moldering.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2010, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.
Website design by David N. Pyles