Personnel: John Etheridge (guitar, electric guitar); Theo Travis (flute, tenor saxophone, piano, Fender Rhodes piano); Roy Babbington (bass guitar); John Marshall (drums, percussion).
Audio Mixer: Andrew Tulloch.
Recording information: Electromantic Synergy Studio, San Sebastiano da Pó, Ita (08/2012).
Photographer: Danilo Sala.
Some fans could construe the title of 2013's Burden of Proof as a response from Soft Machine Legacy to occasional barbed comments from the peanut gallery. Consider first this group's apparent mission: maintaining the legacy of Soft Machine's 1970s jazz-rock years, a period when the Softs gradually replaced their psychedelic pop-era bandmembers with newcomers -- including drummer John Marshall, bassist Roy Babbington, and guitarist John Etheridge, all present here -- whom some regarded as Soft Machine "in name only." In a sense, naysayers placed a burden on these musicians to prove themselves worthy of the Soft Machine banner. Three decades later, four musicians with Soft Machine memberships scattered from 1969 through 1978 began playing together as Soft Machine Legacy, blurring their old band's lineup transitions while stylistically aligning themselves squarely on the jazzy side of the Soft Machine equation, in effect creating a come-together moment around the very music roundly criticized by fans devoted only to the group's '60s pop phase. Sadly, two of those musicians, saxophonist Elton Dean and bassist Hugh Hopper, died after the formation of the Legacy band, and with saxophonist/flutist/keyboardist Theo Travis and Babbington replacing them, this latest quartet almost seems destined to face questions about being Soft Machine Legacy in name only.
Yet at times on this album, questions about legacies and burdens of proof seem the furthest things from the bandmembers' minds. Babbington, Marshall, and Etheridge (all of whom appeared on the 1976 Soft Machine album Softs), along with Travis, already proved themselves to be a highly capable quartet on 2010's Live Adventures. On the studio-recorded Burden of Proof, the Softs legacy surfaces in a spacy version of Hopper's "Kings & Queens," with Travis on flute, and also in Travis' delay-echoed Fender Rhodes introduction to the leadoff title track, not to mention the tune's intersection of Babbington's streamlined modal walking bass with the sax-guitar unison melody line, as Marshall swings and rolls loosely through the tune's angularity. Elsewhere, several short bridging tracks provide atmosphere, and the group also ventures into lengthier group improvisations, sometimes searching, sometimes tumultuous, as on "Voyage Beyond Seven," "Green Cubes," and "Fallout," the latter bookended by a theme hinting at a fragmented "21st Century Schizoid Man," although far more relaxed. Again touching on the '70s Softs, Travis brings arpeggiated Rhodes into the intro and chorus of album highlight "Black and Crimson" -- also a showcase for Etheridge's wide vibrato-laden phrasing -- then pushes his tenor sax to the limit on the slam-bang sax-drums duo "The Brief," which also proves that Marshall can still be a percussive dynamo. But despite its jazzy interludes and heated interplay between Etheridge and Travis, "Pump Room" has a heavy boogie-rock beat, and the roadhouse jazz-blues-flavored "Pie Chart," with Travis wailing away R&B style, is about as far from the Soft Machine oeuvre as you could get. The bandmembers seem to be enjoying themselves, legacy be damned, and out to prove nothing except how to have a good time. ~ Dave Lynch