Volume 1: Memories
Volume 2: Frangloband
Volume 3: North & South (with Mike Travis)
Volume 4: Four By Hugh By Four
Much of the pulse and invention that fueled England's famed Canterbury scene of the 1960s and '70s can be traced to the eclectic bass playing of Hugh Hopper. Whether he was bestowing the fabled "fuzz bass" with guitar-like abilities or striding a subtle groove, Hopper was one of the most industrious electric bassists of his day. But perhaps because the Canterbury flow of psychedelia, fusion and free jazz expression limited his fame to cultish devotion, he was also largely unheralded.
A new 10-volume album import series of archival recordings by Hopper, who died of leukemia in 2009, isn't likely to expand his following. But judging by the first four editions that have been issued since August, the music offers a remarkably expansive musical portrait of a British instrumentalist known mostly for his contributions to the first six albums by the champion Canterbury band Soft Machine.
It is with Soft Machine that the first two installments of this series begins. The initial volume, Memories, takes its name from a warmly unadorned demo by the 1969 trio version of the band (completed by Mike Ratledge and Robert Wyatt). But the rest of Memories is a career sampler that includes jazz pieces by the French-based Frangloband and Scottish drummer Mike Travis with North & South, bands further illuminated on the series' second and third volumes. Two computer-electronic based compositions complete the lineup and serve as the only static moments on these four recordings.
Frangloband also pays tribute to Soft Machine with a fusion-based update of Facelift. The French based group, according to the album notes, "played six gigs in as many years." But this 2003 recording reaches deep into Hooper's post-Softs catalog for fusion-heavy readings (Sliding Dogs, Miniluv) of music often reminiscent of the German band Passport.
The North & South disc is named after the short-lived Scottish/British quartet with Travis. Pulled from an August 1995 concert, it operates with a similarly progressive flavor and some of the same repertoire but with keyboards driving the music instead of Frangloband's guitar-dominated sound. Still, this is a lovely performance.
November's release of Four By Hugh By Four shifts the dynamics for one of only three performances by a quartet with the novel instrumentation of bass, trombone, reeds and drums. This September 2000 outing heightens the jazz perspective with Hopper providing curious, delicate harmony to Was a Friend and fractured swing to Wrong Gong.
Admittedly, these beautifully recorded works are not readily accessible from a practical standpoint (all are imports but are available inexpensively online) as well as a musical one. But what a sublime portrait they help create of an underappreciated stylist. The next six volumes can't come soon enough.
Walter Tunis | Contributing Music writer