Originally published in the NYC Jazz Record, NY@Night column, November 2018
SOFT MACHINE, Hidden Details (MoonJune, 2018)
–record release concert, Oct 13, the Iridium, NYC
CD and concert review by John Pietaro
Soft Machine, the Iridium, Oct 13, 2018 (photo by J Pietaro)
In the wake of social change, counter-culture, mind expansion, Eastern religions, ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and ‘In a Silent Way’, there came a convergence of artful rock and forward-looking jazz. Amidst this, Soft Machine released its first recording. The band has since survived personnel shifts, members’ deaths, breakups, spin-offs and metamorphoses. As a golden anniversary celebration, John Etheridge (guitars), John Marshall (drums), Roy Babbington (bass) and Theo Travis (saxophones and keyboards) released ‘Hidden Details’, topping it off with a world tour.
Soft Machine has not played New York since 1974, so the return was highly anticipated by the cheering loyalists cramming the Iridium on October 13. The iconic band, unfortunately, was twice beleaguered by technical difficulties. The evening kicked off with “Hidden Details”, a gripping fusion number which saw veteran drummer Marshall initially fumbling some over thriving riffs, meter changes and rapid tempo. It all came together with a searing guitar solo but as Soft Machine began another piece, Etheridge’s effects rig cut out. He handled it well, joking with the sympathetic audience, “Right, stand down a second!”, but sometime later, the guitar again fell tacit. As he tried to anxiously fix the problem, the others ultimately left the stage during a torturous 20-minute procedure (it frankly seemed ridiculous that a temporary trio couldn’t have played, stretching out on the planned song to save the moment!).
The concert material combined new works, older repertoire and some pieces as reimagined on the new record. The melodic pairing of Etheridge’s wailing guitar and Travis’ tenor or soprano saxophones creates, both live and on record, a vital, classic sound sometimes reminiscent of Weather Report, Traffic and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. When the band launched into free segments, rocketing over uptempo swing, as guitar and saxophone locked horns, Soft Machine was clearly in its element. Marshall, a bit of British jazz royalty, has collaborated with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, John Surman, Eberhard Weber, Jack Bruce, Centipede and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, among many others. One of the killer-dillers at the Iridium erupted into a lengthy drum feature which drove the crowd to cheering hysterics, encompassing the best of post-bop while giving a nod to the big band drummers who inspired him.
‘Hidden Details’, in any case, is a highly memorable album. Pristinely recorded by Jon Hiseman, who passed away shortly before the release, it captures the best of that fore-mentioned musical convergence. Suffice to say, fans of both electric Miles and King Crimson will welcome this into their collections. Etheridge is a living master class in guitar virtuosity. His distorted sound shreds the jazz/rock boundary on “Hidden Details” and “One Glove”, while on ballads “The Man Who Waved at Trains” and “Heart Off Guard”, featuring Travis’ nimble flute and sinewy soprano respectively, the counterpoint is elegant. Listen for the band’s subtle interplay on “Ground Lift” and compelling free improvisation, “Flight of the Jett”. But Soft Machine is at its collective best on the late Mike Ratledge’s “Out Bloody Rageous”, a wondrous 15/8 which conjures the vibe of Chico Hamilton, bits of Trane and something very much other. It’s the latter, however, that best describes the mythic spectrum of Soft Machine’s first 50 years.
Hidden Details – John Etheridge (gtr), Theor Travis (sax, flute, keyboards), Roy Babbington (bs), John Marshall (dr), guest Nick Utteridge (wind chimes, track 13)
1. Hidden Details
2. The Man Who Waved at Trains
3. Ground Lift
4. Heart Off Guard
5. Broken Hill
6. Flight of the Jett
7. One Glove
8. Out Bloody Rageous (intro)
9. Out Bloody Rageous (part 1)
10. Drifting White
11. Life on Brodges
12. Fourteen Hour Dream