Soft Machine - "FACELIFT" (Recorded at Royal Festival Hall 4/26/70, VoicePrint Records UK, purchased at "OTHERMUSIC" NYC)
"LIVE AT RONNIE SCOTT'S CLUB 4/24/70 (Bootleg 2CD, Purchased at Front Street Music, Philadelphia)
From Aural Innovations #21 (October 2002)
I wish there was as much interest in the work of the SOFTS when "THIRD" first appeared in 1970, as there is these days! Even despite the fact that the LP received some brilliant reviews when it came out, most of the industry was too involved in pushing junk like "Derek & the Dominoes", Grand Funk Railroad and other jiveass abortions like "Jesus Christ SuperStar and Elton John!
I first got to see the SOFTS in 1968; they opened for Jimi Hendrix at the NYC Museum of Modern Art (I got to go because my older brother and his girlfriend were stuck watching me, and dragged me along with promises of a free high off really decent smoke!!!), but was completely unprepared for what I heard on "THIRDS". That double LP just blew me brain, and served as the first link in my musical life between the then emerging Progressive Rock movement, and the (so-called) Jazz I was beginning to discover and become immersed in as part of my instrumental studies.
However, in Europe the Softs were well-recognized and respected as one of the first bands to incorporate Electrified "Rock" instruments with chord structures, riffs, solos and improvisational devices heavily influenced by the early to late 60s music of Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, and the tapeloop effects popularized by Terry Riley, LaMonte Young and others who contributed to the rise "Minimalism" in contemporary Classical Music.
In the UK, the Softs broke ground by being the first "Rock" group to have a residency gig at Ronnie Scott's London Jazz Club, and to appear at the exclusive "Proms" festival at RAH, documented by a Reckless Records LP issued in 1988.
These 2 CD releases were recorded 2 days apart and are excellent examples of the Softs at their creative peak. Having reduced the size of the group from the Bigband that toured Europe in the Fall of 1969 to a quartet of Mike Ratledge (Organ Piano), Hugh Hopper (BassGuitar), Robert Wyatt (Drums, Vocals) and Elton Dean (alto Saxophone, Saxello, Electric Piano), the group began to move away from tight arrangements/orchestrations to a looser format that emphasized group improvisations.
On both dates the band plays it's standard repertoire ("Out-Bloody Rageous", Slightly All the Time, FaceLift, etc), and curiously on both Dean gets off to a rather rough start. Some of Mike Ratledge's leads are difficult to play, as they leap about intervallically and change time signatures in mid-phrase. Yet once he gets going, his Alto and Saxello lead the band with bright, stylish solos that get out in front of the band. He teases the melody as well as approaching some freer textures!
The real focus of this band is the rhythm section, in particular the stellar BassGuitar work of Hugh Hopper. He is an ostinado player, and does not disgrace himself or his instrument by slapping, popping or mugging the BassGuitar (this stuff became standardized in the mid-70s to the point that many JazzRock recordings of the period lack coherent Basswork!!!!) His lines are fluid but solid and strong, and his use of FuzzBass at appropriate moments heightens the tension/release aspect of the tunes, as the band segues between the various numbers with ease!
Robert Wyatt's drumming is one of the most distinctive sounds in Any music, and he acts as the engine, powering the with slashing cymbals and rhythmic intensity, augmenting and responding to Dean's and Ratledge's solo excursions. Mike Ratledge, who wrote many of the tunes, is the max point soloist here, using his distinctive Organ voices on great solo after great solo. During this period, only Larry Young (Khalid Yasin) and Richard Wright were playing as creatively on this instrument. Influenced by Coltrane, Stockhausen, Cecil Taylor, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Satie, Ratledges solos roar and spit, yet soar into areas and atmospheres STILL ignored by "superstar" keyboard figures!
There are serious problems with both CDs however. The sound quality of both is pretty terrible! I cannot understand how an international organization like VOICEPRINT can continue to stay in business, given the poor quality and high price of many of their "live" CD releases. "FACELIFT" has noticeable speed problems, and although these are alluded to in the notes, could have been corrected in the digital realm, as could the noise be dealt with, especially since the CD is being retailed at a premium price!
By contrast, the Ronnie Scott's CD, while noisy, actually improves in sound quality as the set proceeds. If one could find the original recording, it also could be brought up to contemporary standards.
Reviewed by Doug Walker