critic’s pick 262: soft machine, ‘switzerland 1974’

soft machineAt the onset of Switzerland 1974, the wonderful new concert chronicle by psychedelic-turned-prog-turned-fusion rockers Soft Machine, the music floods in with a low, ominous chime. It’s like listening to Big Ben if you were submerged in the Thames. But after a long, fiery drum roll from John Marshall calls the band to order, the music coalesces into riff-saturated interplay that quickly introduces the young British guitarist that would come to define this reinvented era of the band, Allan Holdsworth.

The resulting time capsule CD/DVD set is a remarkable archival find. It captures Soft Machine at the venerable Montreux Jazz Festival on a July 4 bill with two American bands – the fellow fusion troopers of Billy Cobham’s Spectrum and the roots-driven free jazzers of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Soft Machine’s mere placement on such a bill would have been unthinkable even a few years earlier, given its psychedelic beginnings within England’s famed Canterbury scene.

By the time of Switzerland 1974, though, keyboardist Mike Ratledge was the lone original member (he would depart the following year). Under the de-facto leadership of reed player, fellow keyboardist and primary composer Karl Jenkins, the Softs, as the band was often called, had junked nearly all its previous repertoire in favor of compositions that would highlight Holdsworth.

The Swiss audience on hand for what we are now hearing on this recording over four decades later had no idea of what to expect. Guitar had been absent from the Softs’ instrumental lineup since the late ‘60s. Moreover, the bulk of the tunes presented had not been recorded. The band would convene in London later in July to cut the material that would surface in March 1975 as Bundles (a record that received a long overdue remastering and re-release in 2010).

There are a few references to the past on Switzerland 1974, particularly in bassist Roy Babbington’s nod to his Softs predecessor Hugh Hopper during the amplified “fuzz” crescendo of his solo piece Ealing Comedy and the sparring Ratledge and Jenkins engage in (on keys and soprano sax, respectively) during the close of the 16 minute Hazard Profile. Mostly, though, this is music ripe with discovery.

The Floating World, for instance, briefly cools the rockish charge with double Fender Rhodes piano ambience by Ratledge and Jenkins colored by Marshall on glockenspiel with wordless vocals from Holdsworth.

The latter, however, sings more authoritatively in the exact, clear tone of his guitarwork, which provides a seering jazz glee to what would become the title tune to Bundles and the swift, stabbing solo at the end of Penny Hitch (one of the few holdover works from the pre-Holdsworth era).

Holdsworth would bolt shortly after Bundles was released. So what we have here is an extraordinary document of his brief tenure with the Softs as well as a portrait of a storied but powerfully reinvigorated band.

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