Album Remarks & Appraisals:
"By May, 1973, Soft Machine was well on its way from being a truly remarkable outfit to being a comparatively anonymous fusion band. This CD and DVD set goes to show this, but at least the music is played with the kind of fire that wasn't apparent on their studio albums of the time.
While the rhythm section - bassist Roy Babbington and drummer John Marshall - was a lot more "correct" than its predecessors, the pair does inject a kind of redeeming energy into "Link 1 / Link 2," while Karl Jenkins, on baritone sax, proves that he did, indeed, have equal facility on reeds and keyboards. In such company, Soft Machine's sole surviving founding member, keyboardist Mike Ratledge, plays it a lot straighter than he did in earlier incarnations of the band.
"Down The Road" gets a lengthier workout here than it does on Seven (Sony, 1973), with the addition of guitarist Gary Boyle making for a certain creative tension lacking in the studio version. The repetitive bass line gets a little wearing over ten minutes, though, especially when considering how earlier incarnations of the band would, perhaps, have utilized it as a mere starting point.
"Chloe And The Pirates" is both as experimental as anything on offer here - with one notable exception - and an opportunity for Art Themen to take a fiery and inspired soprano sax solo, in a context in which this customary stalwart of Stan Tracey's band has rarely been heard. He's almost quacking like Steve Lacy towards the solo's end, which in an odd way only goes to show that inspiration wasn't too far away - even if the music was radically different from what earlier Soft Machine lineups delivered.
The DVD largely duplicates the CD's contents, highlighting the group's emphasis on the music. Whilst there's nothing inherently wrong with this, the visuals add little to the overall experience.
The same can't be said for ex-Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper's "1983," in audio only on the DVD. It effectively summarizes that much missed individual's idiosyncratic take on fusion, as it stood at the time. Never afraid to utilize tape manipulation as a means for making music, Hopper's piece is a reminder of what his old band was leaving behind. The brooding, foreboding qualities of the piece never lets up, but the manner in which they're augmented by extraneous sounds makes for a tension unlike anything even within the composer's canon. Soft Machine certainly would never produce anything like it again, after this point in time." -AllAboutJazz
"Every year it seems that more archive material is unearthed from Soft Machine, the legendary British group that began life in Dadaist psychedelia, but wound down as a powerhouse, chops-centric, fusion outfit at the end of the 1970s, with stops in more complex writing and free jazz territory along the way. As influenced by minimalist composers such as Terry Riley as it was by trumpeter Miles Davis' electric jazz proclivities, the majority of live material issued during the noughties has focused on the classic lineup of the early 1970s, surrounding the group's Third (Sony, 1970) and Fourth (Sony, 1971). Live recordings have been found from other incarnations, but what makes the CD/DVD combo of NDR Jazz Workshop: Hamburg, Germany May 17, 1973 so important is its first-ever live documentation the quartet responsible for Seven (Sony, 1973).
When bassist Hugh Hopper left the group after the double-LP set (one live, one studio) Six (Sony, 1973), the group came increasingly under the influence of keyboardist/reed man Karl Jenkins - who had replaced another "classic" alum, saxophonist/pianist Elton Dean following Fifth (Sony, 1972). Jenkins, himself an alum of another early British fusion outfit, Nucleus, brought a more riff-driven approach to the writing, in contrast to founding keyboardist (and only remaining original member) Mike Ratledge's denser, more idiosyncratically arranged compositions. Drummer John Marshall - another Nucleus recruit who replaced founding drummer Robert Wyatt after a brief dalliance with Australian drummer Phil Howard on the early sessions for Fifth - brought greater virtuosity to the group, making its gradual move to fusion powerhouse nearly complete. But it was Hopper's replacement - the more rhythm section-focused, six-string bassist Roy Babbington - who in many ways positioned Soft Machine for its most successful and impressive post-"classic lineup" disc, the guitar-heavy Bundles (Harvest, 1975), featuring a relatively young and unknown Allan Holdsworth.
Recorded a month before sessions for Seven began, the majority of NDR Jazz Workshop's material is culled from Six, but what differentiates this set from others featuring Jenkins - such as Softstage: BBC In Concert 1972 (Hux, 2005) - is the inclusion of all the material from Six's studio disc, where each member wrote a track (in the case of the fiery "Stanley Stamp's Gibbon Album," a collaboration between Marshall and Ratledge). Even Hopper's swan song - the dark, oblique and tapeloop-driven "1983" - shows up as an audio-only bonus on the DVD, with the late bassist making a guest appearance in a performance also notable for the inclusion of Isotope guitarist Gary Boyle and saxophonist Art Themenin the second half of the performance. Jenkins' hypnotic, twin-electric piano-driven "The Soft Weed Factor" only appears on the DVD, but both "Stanley Stamp's" and Ratledge's gentle ballad, "Chloe and the Pirates," can be found on both discs.
What's perhaps most notable about this particular incarnation of Soft Machine at this particular moment in time is that free improvisations were still a part of the picture, largely used as transitional segues between composed pieces. "Link 1" and "2" - edited together on the CD, but actually bracketing "The Soft Weed Factor" on the DVD - are respectively minimalist-informed and aggressively jagged, leading to Ratledge's riff-based "37 ½." By Seven, Soft Machine would become a group largely focusing on solos in the context of predefined form, but here its earlier, freer disposition still holds partial sway.
From left: Karl Jenkins, John Marshall, Mike Ratledge, Roy Babbington
While there is existing video footage of earlier Soft Machine performances, the 70-minute video footage of NDR Jazz Workshop represents some of the clearest to date, sans the visual effects of, say, Grides (Cuneiform, 2006). Instead, the camera work is as direct as Soft Machine was gradually becoming, as the core quartet gradually pulled away from the expressionistic freedom of only a year or two previous.
Boyle hasn't gone down in the books as a guitarist of great significance - the way Holdsworth or his eventual replacement, John Etheridge have - but as an example of early 1970s fusion guitar, he makes a surprisingly strong showing here, especially on the up-tempo, pedal-tone-driven "Stumble," where clear articulation and rapid-fire picking make for some of the disc's most exciting moments. And it's great to see the normally staid and unmoving Ratledge as down and funky with his bad self as he'd ever get, on a brighter-tempo'd version of his groove-driven "Gesolrut" that, again, features an extended and impressive solo from Boyle and an even more visceral turn from Themen. In fact, if any member of Soft Machine is eligible for "most disinterested-looking participant" award, it's Jenkins, who - whether playing saxophones, oboe, electric piano or recorder, as he does on an early version of the slow-pulsed "Down the Road," heard on the CD only, and the only track that would eventually land on Seven - barely lifts an eyebrow throughout. There are those who would place the responsibility/blame for Soft Machine's evolution (some would say devolution) towards a clearer fusion sound firmly at Jenkins' feet but, while he would never become as respected an improviser as Dean, he's in very good form here.
From left: Karl Jenkins, John Marshall, Roy Babbington
Gary Boyle, Mike Ratledge, Art Themen
Similarly, Babbington would never establish as distinctive a reputation as Hopper, but this busy session musician (then and subsequently) sure knew how to hold down a groove - an important distinction for what Soft Machine had become by this time, since Marshall's strength was a visceral combination of big sound, big ideas and big fills. Still, even Marshall's propensity for busier playing didn't detract from the core pulse, as he plays it relatively simple on "The Soft Weed Factor," but takes a powerful and limb-challenging solo of clear construction on "One Across."
As the only existing live documentation of this particular incarnation of the ever-changing Soft Machine (no two albums featured the exact same lineup), NDR Jazz Workshop: Hamburg, Germany May 17, 1973 would be an important enough find. Most significant, however, is that it more clearly positions a line-up often considered, based on Seven, as nothing more than the transitional and, perhaps, incomplete group that only truly found itself again with the recruitment of Holdsworth for Bundles. While the majority of NDR Jazz Workshop does, certainly, feature a larger, guitar-heavy setting that foreshadows what was to come, the opening set that features the quartet alone makes clear that this was, indeed, a version of Soft Machine with its own strengths and inimitable charm. " -AllAboutJazz
Down Beat (p.61) - 4.5 stars out of 5 -- "'Down The Road' and the subtly frenetic 'Stumble' offer two contrasting approaches to their unique takes on arrangements and improvisation, one more trance-like, the other more aggressive and fanciful..."
Personnel: Gary Boyle (guitar); Karl Jenkins (recorder, oboe, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, piano, electric piano); Art Themen (soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone); Mike Ratledge (electric piano, organ); John Marshall (drums).
Liner Note Author: Aymeric Leroy.
Recording information: Congresszentrum, Hamburg, Germany (05/17/1973).
Cuneiform tends to prefer Soft Machine's earliest and "classic" lineups, so the label's release of NDR Jazz Workshop: Hamburg, Germany 1973 might seem mysterious. The core group on this two-disc live CD/DVD package -- Mike Ratledge (keyboards), Karl Jenkins (reeds/keyboards), Roy Babbington (bass), John Marshall (drums) -- is often considered an also-ran in Softs history, appearing on the final CBS/Columbia outing Seven. Here, the band mainly plays music from the half-live/half-studio double-LP set Six. Bassist Hugh Hopper had just departed, replaced by Babbington, and sole original member Ratledge was beginning to split the writing duties roughly 50/50 with Jenkins. To some listeners, the idiosyncratic pleasures of early Soft Machine were fading away, replaced by a riff-based jazz-rock executed professionally but a bit too cleanly, lacking fire and sometimes just a tad too repetitive. Well, let's not be too harsh -- the emerging Jenkins could be a canny composer/arranger, with time signature quirks, a nice sense of melody and space, and instrumental voicings that made the Softs' transition into their latter-day jazz-rock era appear nearly seamless. And if you need evidence that Soft Machine circa 1973 could indeed be a hot property, here it is. Yes, Cuneiform had strong reasons for releasing this. As noted in Aymeric Leroy's liners, the German public broadcasting program's audio and video quality is "superb," and that's not an overstatement (kudos to Udi Koomran for audio restoration and mastering). One might quibble about moments when a soprano sax is too low in the mix, but for the most part NDR Jazz Workshop is well balanced and crystal clear in both vision and sound. The cameras glide in smooth tracking shots around the band, and also linger where they should when each musician is in the spotlight, although sometimes (characteristic of the era) pulling in tight on a face and sticking around too long there (hello, razor stubble).
The CD and DVD, which generally replicate one another, are both divided into two parts, the second portion truly coming alive with the arrivals of guests Gary Boyle on guitar and Art Themen on tenor and soprano saxophones -- Boyle's fleet-fingered, jagged runs and Themen's robust playing seem to fire up the others on jazz-rockers like the odd-metered "Stanley Stamp's Gibbon Album" and groove-based "Gesolreut." The latter is probably as funked up as the often cerebral Softs ever got, its central jam bracketed by a sax/keyboard riff that ends with an emphatic unison punch. Here played by the sextet, it's stretched to nearly 12 minutes, almost double the length of the quartet version on Six, with a sound that's more expansive, the band faster and more fluid beneath Boyle's animated bursts and Themen's buildup from clipped notes into extended phraseology and finally overblown upper-register squeals. Also nearly double the length of its studio incarnation (on the as-yet-unreleased Seven), "Down the Road" grooves more languidly, played here by the sextet but in audio form on the CD only. Short improvisational "Link" tracks nicely bridge the scored material, "Link 1" -- like the "Chloe and the Pirates" intro -- featuring Ratledge's patented spacy keyboard loops echoing off into the ether. The most avant-garde moments arrive with the DVD audio-only "bonus" tracks. Hugh Hopper pays a visit on a 15-and-a-half-minute version of his ominous fuzzed-up stop-start tape loop piece "1983"; recording difficulties transformed this full-band experiment into essentially a Hopper-Marshall duet, but it still has its moments. "Encore Improvisation/Stumble Reprise" is 11 minutes of exploratory jamming, moving from free to funk to space before shifting abruptly to a brief slam-bang unison finale. ~ Dave Lynch