Soft Machine Switzerland 1974Finally released – this is the Montreux set that catches Soft Machine as they introduce guitar and morph into a mature jazz/prog band that retains its experimental edge.

Label: Cuneiform Records
Time:  61 mins

The Montreux Jazz Festival has produced some great live sets, many now also available on DVD, and this – the only visual record of this impressive Soft Machine line-up – has to be among the most historic.

Cuneiform have been making available a series of new and rare Soft Machine releases, now covering material from 1967 to 1974. In 1974, jazz-rock was still in its ascendancy, inspiring players on both sides of the fusion, and this set should please both jazz lovers and rock fans.

It catches Soft Machine at the point of its regeneration, with guitarist Allan Holdsworth added to the line-up, and featuring instrumental material from the excellent Bundles disc, which was recorded only a couple of weeks later.

The hour-long set begins with the superb “Hazard Profile,” which comprised the first side of the vinyl release. Unusually for an extended jazz-rock fusion piece, it is full of memorable – and even hummable – themes.

While Holdsworth’s welcome inclusion is noteworthy (not least for generating a completely new repertoire that stood on the shoulders of the band’s previous work) and his fluid shredding adds significantly to the textures in the band, it is two other players that most impress me.

Drummer John Marshall rarely slows his driving rhythms, sensing everything that is going on around him and bringing it into his playing.

Keys and sax player Karl Jenkins (later of Adiemius fame) is the musician most aware of how vital space is and his soprano sax work is as airy and smooth as the rhythm section is turbo-charged.

A few older (and more sprawling) pieces are interspersed with the new ones, largely to give the band members showcase spots. Marshall plays a mesmerising repeat xylophone pattern in front of his kit, interweaving delicate lines with founding keyboardist Mike Ratledge, while a somewhat disconcerted-looking Holdsworth adds wordless vocals.

Six-string bassist Roy Babbington splits his solo between conventional bass and a more guitar-styled fuzz section.

While the set sometimes verges on noodling on CD, the DVD shows what is going on and reveals some fascinating creativity to achieve the sounds they made, such as when Marshall sits a small, loose cymbal upside-down on his drum during his solo. 

The visual team takes every opportunity to feature the lines of coloured knobs on the synth control board – clearly a novelty for them back in 1974. The year also means that there is a pre-digital loss of sharpness at times, mostly on distant stage shots. However, achieving the quality managed on this release is credit to the restoration work that Cuneiform have done, through video editor Douglas Moon and sound engineer Udi Koomran, who painstakingly assembled this music from 30 year old damaged tapes. On odd occasions, they had to use inferior sources as patches, but their work is done well enough that this rarely affects the enjoyment of the set.

All this simply adds to capturing the moment – one that saw the Softs move into their strongest and most satisfying phase.

Derek Walker

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