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The Soft Machine - Live In France (Paris) CD (album) cover


The Soft Machine


Canterbury Scene

3.31 | 22 ratings

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4 stars Of all the archival Soft Machine live releases that have come out since the early 1990s (and there have been many), this double CD remains one of my very favorites. This captures the band in their full electric jazz mode circa "Fifth", and is probably the best-sounding live document of the Softs I've yet heard, beating out even the excellent "Virtually" Cuneiform release. On top of that, the performance is highly professional, yet loose and daring.

For this 1972 concert, the lineup was Elton Dean (sax, e.piano), Mike Ratledge (e.piano, organ), Hugh Hopper (bass gtr), and John Marshall (drums). The set list contains all of "Fifth" (minus the experimental studio sax piece "Bone") and most of "Third" (no "Moon in June"). Many Soft Machine fans will lament the departure of original drummer Robert Wyatt, who always added an exciting layer of spontaneity in his drumming and vocal contributions, but what they lost in excitement they gained in superlative technique with John Marshall. With his busy yet rock-solid drumming, the band seems more capable of stretching out than ever before, confident that Marshall will keep things moving forward. This is a welcome relief after the brief but chaotic five month period where original replacement drummer Phil Howard toured with the band -- as exciting as his free-jazz inclinations were, Ratledge and Hopper seemed to be at a loss for playing in that style (as evidenced on the historically worthwhile yet indubitably inferior "Drop" archival release).

The "Fifth" material sounds much like it did on the proper album -- smooth, slow jazz grooves with the "noisy" side of the band kept to a minimum (though still present). The "Third" material is also significantly more mellow than it was in the Wyatt days, and to good effect. At the very least, one can be assured that this isn't "just another version of Facelift" (to borrow a common complaint about the frequent and often similar archival releases) on here; in fact, the song "Facelift" isn't really even recognizable as such until at least halfway through its 17 minute length, getting rid of the crazy organ distortion intro in favor of a slowly bubbling fusion jam that eventually gives way to the song's main theme. Even "Slightly All the Time", which was a fairly mellow jazz piece to begin with, gets a looser arrangement with Elton Dean not so much playing the melody as suggesting it. Maybe he was getting a little tired of playing it; he would soon leave the band, having essentially lost the battle to move the band into more free jazz during the past year. Further confirming the loose nature of the set, the closing number is an eleven minute improvisation called "At Sixes", which blends so easily in with the rest of the set that it's sometimes hard to notice it's a different piece.

Excellent live Soft Machine, highly recommended for fans of their more jazzy side. Superb sound quality (recorded for a radio broadcast, I believe), inspired, expert performances, and some of the band's best tunes in the set list. Not essential, but an excellent addition to any Soft Machine, Canterbury, or Jazz Rock/Fusion collection.

HolyMoly | 4/5 |


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