Soft Machine – Six – NDR Jazz Workshop-Hamburg, Germany 1973 – Cuneiform Records/ Rune 305/306-CD: 78:53, + DVD (16:9, PCM Stereo): 74:15. ****1/2:
(Ray Babbington – bass; Karl Jenkins – oboe, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, recorder, electric piano, piano; John Marshall – drums; Mike Ratledge – electric piano, organ; Gary Boyle – guitar; Art Themen – soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, Hugh Hopper – bass, tapeloops)
Soft machine, named for the William S. Burroughs novel, were pioneers of the British Progressive Music scene in the sixties. With an unusual mixture of psychedelic rock, jazz, and classical, the original lineup of Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers Daevid Allen and Mike Ratledge challenged the parameters of commercial music, creating an “underground” sonic culture. The band would experience many configurations (Andy Summers of the Police was a member for a short time) over the years. Ratledge would anchor the band, and the addition of multi-instrumentalist Karl Jenkins, drummer John Marshall and bassist Roy Babbington set the stage for the recording of Six. They would add Hugh Hopper, Art Themen and Gary Boyle for the upcoming NDR Jazz Workshop in Hamburg, Germany on May 17, 1973. Soft Machine would continue with different groups of musicians for many years.
In some ways the music on Six represents a career defining effort. Infused with jazz and improvisation the pieces merged seamlessly into a lyrical context. The NDR television performance maintained its primary focus on that album. Both CD and DVD have been restored with superior audio and video production. The opening set, featuring the core group, emphasizes the chemistry and cohesive quartet play. “All White” balances Ratledge’s rhythmic electric piano and the shrillness of Jenkins’ soprano saxophone. “37½” has Jenkins on tenor saxophone as the ferocious drumming of Marshall maintains a steady pulse. The delicate precision of Ratledge’s electric piano and the drumming of Marshall can be heard on tempo breaks and segue pieces, like “Fanfare”, “Link 1,""Link 2” and “Link 3”. The set uses fusion hooks, ethereal coloration, and acid-edged jams to drive the sonic themes. Support from Art Themen (saxophone) and Gary Boyle (guitar) add improvisational accents to the dynamics.
The second set features the larger ensemble. “Chloe and the Pirates” and “Stumble” offer the wide range of the compositions. The former is very melodic and introspective, while the latter has a looser, idiosyncratic edge. This group is captured at its creative peak. Former member, Hugh Hopper shines on the tapeloops driven bonus audio cut “1983”, notable for its brooding, theatrical arrangement.
Filmed with amazing clarity, the images contained in the DVD are vibrant without the gimmickry of fades or zooms. The straightforward footage reflects the aesthetic intention of the group. As this performance was recorded thirty-seven years ago, both the CD and DVD deliver a high caliber of technology. For those getting their initial exposure to Soft Machine, this dual disc will be engaging. For long time fans of the group….welcome to Xanadu!
CD Tracklist: (Part 1) Fanfare; All White; Link 1/Link 2; 37 1/2; Link 3; Riff; (Part 2) Down The Road; Link 3a; Stanley Stamp’s Gibbon Album; Chloe And The Pirates; Gesolreut; E.P.V.; Link 4; Stumble; One Across; Riff II.
DVD Tracklist: (Part 1) Fanfare; All White; Link 1; The Soft Weed Factor; Link 2; 37 ½; Link 3; Riff; (Part 2) Stanley Stamp’s Gibbon Album; Chloe And The Pirates; Gesolreut; E.P.V.; Link 4; Stumble; One Across; Riff II; Audio Bonus material-1983; Encore Improvisation/Stumble Reprise.
— Robbie Gerson