Soft Machine Legacy – Burden of Proof – MoonJune MJR052, 55:09 ****:
(John Etheridge – electric guitar; Roy Babbington – bass guitar; John Marshall – drums, percussion; Theo Travis – tenor saxophone, flute, Fender Rhodes piano)
Despite its name, Soft Machine Legacy is not a tribute project or an exercise in recreating the music of the original Soft Machine (whose heyday extended from the late 1960s to the early 1970s). Soft Machine was formed in the UK in 1966 and the incipient incarnation (led by singer Roy Ayers and drummer Robert Wyatt) was part of the English psychedelic pop/rock scene, alongside Pink Floyd, Tomorrow and Gong. By 1972, Wyatt and Ayers were gone and Soft Machine’s second manifestation occurred, headed by saxophonist Elton Dean, who shaped Soft Machine into one of the distinctive jazz-rock ensembles of the decade. That edition of Soft Machine lasted, with various personnel changes, until the late ‘70s. Since then, assorted Soft Machine-related spin-off outfits have come and gone (Soft Heap, Soft Head, Soft Ware, Soft Works and finally Soft Machine Legacy), with previous band members re-joining, departing and others enlisting. Trying to list Soft Machine and Soft Machine Legacy participants would result in a complex infographic/family tree.
The latest Soft Machine Legacy quartet includes three prior Soft Machine alumni (guitarist John Etheridge; bassist Roy Babbington; and drummer John Marshall) with saxophonist Theo Travis (who also supplies flute and Fender Rhodes). Travis has done studio and stage work with Porcupine Tree, Gong, Robert Fripp, and David Sylvian, and linked up with Soft Machine Legacy in 2007: he’s on studio effort, Steam, and contributed to the 2010 Live Adventures album, taped during a 2009 European tour.
Soft Machine Legacy’s nearly hour-long, 13-track Burden of Proof follows the path trod by preceding releases: elements of art rock, jazz rock and fusion, with puffs of prog rock, boogie rock and blues. Jazz-centered originals are prominent. The opening title track maintains a mid-tempo groove highlighted by Babbington’s modal bass lines, and Travis and Etheridge have fun with the melody, while Marshall reels freely on drums. Soft Machine Legacy’s jazz-rock tendency also courses through “Black and Crimson,” where Etheridge utilizes vibrato to add slanted phrasing to his soloing, and Travis layers arpeggios via Rhodes and sizzles on sax. Long-time Soft Machine aficionados will appreciate the “Kings & Queens” remake, initially found on the 1971 Soft Machine record, Fourth. Babbington respects the first version’s bass riff and Travis exchanges Dean’s sax with airy flute, which is carefully echoed by Etheridge’s blithe guitar. The succinct tenor sax and drum duet, aptly titled “The Brief,” showcases impromptu jazz, fronted by Marshall’s polyrhythmic, weighty drums rolls.
Soft Machine Legacy shows an experimental aspect on other tunes. The group improvisation piece “Green Cubes” is like fusion on a brazen departure. The track is filled with dissolute guitar, cloudy effects and amiable flute, and after a while Travis switches to a breathy sax, but the cut deteriorates somewhat from lack of direction: the vamp at the finish appears structurally unattached to the rest of “Green Cubes.” “Voyage Beyond Seven” begins in jazzy territory, and then melts into a dream-like soundscape of painterly Rhodes, guitar effects and loops, flute and rudderless rhythm. At the conclusion, the group escalates into a noisy outsider-jazz agitation. The disjointed “Fallout” has a similar stance, whose purpose seems to be to inundate through unrestrained music which manipulates the main theme from King Crimson’s classic song “21st Century Schizoid Man” as a start and end point.
Blues is used as well, particularly during the impelling “Pie Chart,” where Travis and Etheridge raise a ruckus with British-blues bravura, with only a few jazz references thrown into the balance. A heavier boogie-rock beat, which hints at English groups such as Ten Years After or Savoy Brown, prods through “Pump Room,” which features a portly Babbington bass line, while Etheridge evokes Jeff Beck circa-1975, and Travis’ sax has an RnB foundation. There are three, short connecting cuts which offer atmospheric lead-ins to some numbers, but are either unresolved or incomplete. The engineering and mixing benefits the music: Etheridge’s guitar is up-front and meaty when needed, but materializes from the depths when a lighter, ghostly result is desirable; the Fender Rhodes is panned back and forth, which often creates a kaleidoscopic texture; and Marshall’s percussive nuance is effectively noticed during quieter moments. One wonders, though, if the reverb could have been brought down to some degree on some tunes.
TrackList: Burdon of Proof; Voyage Beyond Seven; Kitto; Pie Chart; JSP; Kings and Queens; Fallout; Going Somewhere Canorous?; Black and Crimson; The Brief; Pump Room; Green Cubes; They Landed on a Hill.