Soft Heap
Al Dente

(Reel Recordings)

It was (more or less) during the mid-70s that the whole group of "parallel streams", never really "commercial", that for reasons of easiness of use are usually placed under the collective umbrella name "New English Jazz" came to their end. A sad fate, that - though differences for reasons of style were not few - immediately placed them side-by-side with those groups from the "Classy Progressive" camp such as Hatfield And The North. In just a couple of years both will become victims of the "friendly fire" shot by Punk, or - better said - by that fad-loving UK press which made a "straw man" of Prog as an example of empty gigantism, when in fact they were just titillating the assorted inferiority complexes of audiences asking for cheap thrills.

Though inside a frame of "diminishing expectations", a few fans greeted with sympathy the birth of a new line-up which, while openly referring to the past - Soft - presented a certain change of scenery - Head, i.e., the initials of its members. Though the names of Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean made the much-loved group come to one's mind, those of electric pianist Alan Gowen and drummer Dave Sheen sounded as they promised a new freshness, if not a whole new musical language.

Released by Ogun in 1978, Rogue Element appeared to successfully translate the group's live experience into nice home listening, thanks to a good mixing work, and skillful editing. Album opener Seven For Lee, by Dean, immediately becoming a tiny classic from this period, with the long track penned by Gowen, C.R.R.C., showing the quartet move along different coordinates.

Due to "selective attention" on the part of the music press, I don't really know much about the way the next studio album of the same name by the group, now Soft Heap, was greeted, the P standing for familiar face, drummer Pip Pyle. Personally speaking, I really felt let down, and it was after buying the thing that I started questioning the whole matter more. Nothing appeared to work as expected on that record, the studio sound being muddy and unremarkable, the quartet sounding uncertain about what to do. Gowen sounded mediocre, Hopper and Dean sounded tired, and this is obviously not the first record one has to listen to if one has never listened to Pip Pyle, who's almost impossible to recognize here.

So it was with a certain amount of ambivalence that I heard about the release of a new (old) album by Soft Heap, titled Al Dente, which has a "cooking cover" which has one immediately thinking about that old album I didn't like. And it was with a certain amount of surprise that I found myself enjoying the album. Just two caveats.

As it's easy to read on their Web site, Reel Recordings like to release warm-sounding live documents sounding as close as possible to perfect. Something which will sound quite disconcerting to all those who, after listening to Al Dente, will surely rank it as a mid-fi bootleg. Which is true enough. But since in this case the source of the concert is a stereo tape reel at 3 & 3/4 we'll have to place the sound in the right context, having this CD as a precious discovery who won't hurt one's ears. In fact, after one becomes used to the sound, provided one pays the proper amount of attention (but maybe nowadays this is asking for a bit too much, perhaps?), it's easy to notice worthy details such as Pip Pyle's bass drum work, or the natural sound of those bass strings under Hopper's touch, the latter meaning that signal compression was not overdone.

The second point is about the fact that Al Dente maybe really sounds better than it sounded to me: since my CD player is still at the repairer's, to judge Al Dente I had to use a cheap, emergency, CD player, while those old LPs I referred to earlier were listened to on my usual turntable/cartridge combination.

Al Dente features a live concert recorded in London, at the Phoenix Club, on November, 22, 1978. Six tracks are featured in all, for a total of 73'. Thinking about this line-up is quite stimulating. Alan Gowen is an electric pianist that's quite different from Mike Ratledge, who was pretty sparse when comping on the electric piano. In so differently from Ratledge, behind Gowen one can hear a long study of orthodox jazz "comping", chord substitution, and working melodically in parallel to the soloist. Here, Pip Pyle is almost a "stronger and more muscular" version of Phil Howard - one can't help but wonder what fate would have been reserved for Soft Machine had the group chosen somebody sounding more like this Pyle than John Marshall.

Fara is the nice bluesy ballad - a "sensitive theme", played mid-tempo, almost la Sonny Rollins - that we know already, with alto sax by the composer, elegant cymbals, nice backing by bass and piano; the latter instrument - after stating the structure - walks in parallel to the saxophone. Nice Gowen solo at about 7', with a nice counterpoint by Pyle.

Sleeping House is, I believe, an unreleased track by Gowen. A medium-fast tempo, a very agile Hopper on bass, then a saxello solo sounding quite "bitter". At about 7' there's a nice unison passage of saxello and bass, then a piano solo with the rhythm section sounding almost like a Hopper/Howard. At about 11' there's a nice bass/drums unison, a change of tempo, and nice accents from bass/bass drum. After about a quarter of an hour, the ending sounds not a little like Soft Machine.

C.R.R.C. is slow and cyclical, lyric, with Pip Pyle's toms sounding quite "black". Nice piano solo at about 10', with ostinato and crescendo from bass/drum. At about 12', what sounds like tape editing brings the listener to...

Circle Line: a classic knotty-sounding theme by Hopper for a track where the bass plays many unison parts with the sax and the piano. There's a piano solo, followed by an excellent bass/drums part, highlighting in turn cymbal, bass drum, crash, and rimshot. Theme played on sax/bass, the close coming at about 6'.

Slow and lyric, Remain So by Gowen almost sounds like a standard. An orthodox-sounding sax solo, classic comping, solo piano at about 9'30, theme, and close at 17'.

The last track features the well-known melody by Elton Dean here going under the title One For Lee. Excellent solos from piano and sax, and a really great performance from Pyle.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2008 | June 26, 2008