Music News & Reviews

Critic's pick: Soft Machine, 'Live at Henie Onstad Arts Centre 1971'

Since its official demise in the early 1980s, 15 or so concert recordings by the British psychedelic-turned-prog-turned-jazz fusion ensemble Soft Machine have been released.

Most have come from its 1970-71 era, a time when the band's move from psychedelia was complete, and a sense of jazz and free improvisation abounded. Fans and critics generally agree that this lineup — keyboardist Mike Ratledge, saxophonist Elton Dean, bass guitarist Hugh Hopper and drummer Robert Wyatt — was the most daring of Soft's numerous incarnations.

So it remains to our good fortune that so many of the quartet's concert performances keep emerging on CD. But even those who thrilled to the 2006 CD/DVD release of Grides, taken from an October 1970 show, should brace themselves for the new two-disc Live at Henie Onstad Arts Center 1971. This is, hands down, the best-sounding live document of any Soft Machine lineup — much less the famed early '70s group — to date. How these reel-to-reel recordings from a February 1971 show at a Norwegian arts center remained undiscovered for so long is anyone's guess. One can't help but wonder what other treasures remain buried.

The repertoire on Live is pulled primarily from Soft Machine's third and fourth albums, but like all the performances that the band gave during the day, the compositions tend to melt into extended suites. The first set, documented as a 40-minute firestorm that makes up Live's first disc, mounts slowly into the spacey Rhodes piano colors and percussive rumblings of Facelift. The band approximates the abstract fusion that Herbie Hancock was exploring at roughly the same time, but the fuzzy tone of Hooper's electric bass remains the band's prime musical calling card and one of the primary ties to its psychedelic beginnings. That leads into the more rugged jazz turns of the four-section, 20-minute Virtually.

The music reaches a serious boil on the second disc. As Neo Caliban Grides begins to take shape, Ratledge and Dean go wild with free-jazz exchanges on organ and sax. Wyatt supplements the dialogue to a degree, but during the three or so minutes that Ratledge and Dean go head to head, the Softs create music as complex, creative and demanding as anything the European avant garde offered at the time. But in a six-minute encore version of Noisette, Ratledge switches back to electric piano, Dean squeezes in his sax leads and solos into a warm but desperate groove, and the Softs become a prog band all over again.

Add to this the stunning recording clarity, and Live becomes a vital, living snapshot of art in motion, even if that art is nearly four decades old.