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Soft Works - Abracadabra CD (album) cover


Soft Works


Canterbury Scene

3.01 | 16 ratings

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Dick Heath
Special Collaborator
Jazz-Rock Specialist
3 stars Soft Works first album, Abracadabra (Moon June), was release in Japan early in 2003 by Universal Japan, while the rest of the world had to wait patiently for several months for its release (Tone Center in UK and USA). Recorded in London June 2002 largely in single takes, the promised release date was delayed as the band's perfectionist insisted in doing his overdubs in LA - clearly to the frustration of many.

Am I disappointed? No!!! Am I surprised by its music? Yes but I did not expect this calibre of musicians to simply pick approximately where they left off in the 70's. They had long moved on!!!

But note, as you read this review you'll find I'm pre-disposed to the band. And for the obvious reason that Soft Works is directly related to the Soft Machine through its personnel, innovators of the European jazz rock in the early 70's; I can't say enough about the importance of the Machine. In order of service with the original Machine, Soft Works are Hugh Hopper (electric bass), Elton Dean (alto sax, saxello, Fender Rhodes), John Marshall (drums) and Allan Holdsworth (guitar and Synthaxe). Even though I have to hark back to the last century, be reminded that these gentlemen weren't all in the Machine at the same time. This is a dream band, indeed a supergroup, producing good music?

Abracadabra finds all musicians on top form. Elton Dean and Allan Holdsworth have about equal shares of the lead through this record, and come up with some tingling duet work. Fewer words are said below about the rhythm section of Hopper and Marshall. Hopper is his usual economical self, never flashy but still providing that distinct bass-sound of old - even though there is less of the fuzz effect. John Marshall is the master drummer, and here demonstrating a broad and deep range from jazz rock to free jazz, which reinforce his ranking with the best.

'Seven Formerly' (ED/JM) (10.22) opens the album, with a nod to the past. Synthaxe (I presume, rather than the Rhodes), is used to create the Terry Riley-influenced, minimalist opening bars first heard back on Third's 'Out-Bloody-Rageous'. [On this assumption, the opening bars parallel and faintly echo of the opening of his album Metal Fatigue. On that, after striking some heavy chords as an opening statement, seemingly in acknowledgement of his name being on the lips of every heavy rock axeman of that time, Holdsworth reverted to what his does well, playing his form of jazz rock]. And then, after a few bars of the minimalism, we are into the modern jazz which is Soft Works.This is but a brief acknowledgement to the past, because the group quickly get on with the new - new jazz built on thirty years of taking musical risks: exploring, developing and shifting the boundaries. Dean melodically leads on alto, while Holdsworth's legato provides embroidering with its echoing fills. At first Hopper and Marshall are arhymic but settle down to a medium pace, toe -apping rhythm. By now the piece has moved to classic Dean, as he swoops as old, as Holdsworth chops. Nothing is wasted, nothing duplicated. Six and half minutes in and Holdsworth takes the lead for a mere 80 seconds - love at first hearing. Similarly, nothing wasted, nothing duplicated. I've said it before, Holdsworth is at his best improvising other people's music, and here the economy with tightness of statement shows. This evidence Holdsworth is still getting better - further shown on his latest release All Night Wrong.

'First Trane' (HH) (11.53). This tune and arrangement is a reaffirmation that John Coltrane's modal jazz remains a significant force with the band members. Hopper leads with a simple bass riff, quickly taken up and developed by Dean, although within the space of a few bars, we are treated to a Dean/Holdsworth duet. This powerful duet takes the form of a call (by alto) and reply (by guitar) - and you have to ask: when was Holdsworth last pushed like this on record? Almost gilding the lily, belatedly Holdsworth takes the lead before a return to the dueting after 9 minutes.

Two very strong tracks already, and 6 to go. And the third is great too, and perhaps my favourite..

'Elsewhere' (HH) (8.01). Did Hopper write this with Holdsworth in mind? It has a hallmark, reflective Holdsworth legato opening. Marshall breaks in, upping the ante with a galloping beat, and allowing Dean to kick off on a long alto solo - reminding us this man is a world-class sax player. Wow!

'K-Licks' (Phil Miller) (6.48). For the first time on this album Hopper activates his famous fuzz bass tone. Initially the bass interplays with the tenor, but Dean moves to the fore to play the first of the freer, improv jazz tunes. A hard one for the jazz rock fans, but a joy for those who prefer Dean in an improvisional mood. And dare I write it: there are times when I find the guitar-work is over-elaborate and even intrusive as here - the arrangement and playing here don't compare too favourably with the few instruments used on 'Madam Vintage', later on.

'Baker's Treat' (ED) (5.40). (A nice English pun of a title). Having counted the tune in, Dean breaks his saxello out from its case for a slow, mellow piece. Holdsworth' accompanying resonant legato is initially set some way back in the mix, well complimenting the sax solo. I 'm trying to avoid over-enthusing the quality of soloing by either musician, but again no disappointments here. That is but for one: the tune is over before you know it.

'Willie's Knee' (ED) (5.17). This is as close as we are going to get to jazz rock on this album, and one for those who might be troubled by the straighter jazz elsewhere. Dean's Fender Rhodes leads with Synthaxe to the rear, on a catchy upbeat number. About a minute in and a trade mark, longish Holdsworth solo ensues, all legato mixed with those fast runs - how does he keep it fresh? Then alto sax double tracked with Fender at approximately 3 minutes in - and this time I'm surprised and pleasured by Dean.

'Abracadabra' (HH/JM) (7.34). This opens slowly and majestically, reminiscent of European chamber jazz: is this the album's ECM track? A hint of another ECM element is Dean's use of a swooping and soaring saxello, a la Garbarek (e.g. as on the album All Those With Wing) - but wash my mouth out; as soon as I cast my mind back, I remember Dean did this sort of thing well before the appearance of Jan Garbarek. A few bars in and Hopper cranks up the rhythm a touch, as he introduces a vaguely Spanish riff. saxello and guitar follow the bass, before easing their way into the lead. Time for another great piece of playing by Dean, while Holdsworth seems to be at his most relaxed, providing the necessary, understated support to Dean's. This is the track where Dean and Holdsworth work best together.

'Madam Vintage' (AH/JM) (4.56). I guess this is the Holdsworth 'improv' piece, (how many overdubs here though?). Am I right in saying: it is a long time since Holdsworth improvised on such an apparently free piece, back to when he worked with John Stevens in the late 70's? For all its complexity and absence of melody, all Holdsworth fans should love this, the master showing he is still a million light years ahead of the clones attempting to imitate. Note: here only John Marshall is in excellent support; Hopper and Dean taking a well deserved rest - less is more!

Finally: can this album be dropped into the section labelled Canterbury in the record stores? Certainly but three decades on and with only a few obvious roots leading back to its origins. This new hybrid may have already outgrown its pot but will its parts stay together for the second album?

Dick Heath | 3/5 |


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