Soft Machine
Live In Paris


Of all the line-ups that can be filed under the (mysterious but ultimately useful) "New English Jazz" label, Soft Machine are without a doubt the group that's still remembered with more affection and warmth, especially on the Continental part of Europe where at the time their music was met with real enthusiasm - and tangible sales. And I'm quite sure that had Soft Machine been an American group by now they would have received their due in the evolution of the electric music, post-Davis.

Cognoscenti know quite well that the group's history is more than a bit complicated, and they reserve a special spot for the album titled Volume Two, quite influential on many groups - alas!, of the non-commercial kind. Hence, outside the pages of most Encyclopedias.

Whether Soft Machine were still a good group after Robert Wyatt jumped ship has always been the source of heated arguments. One could maybe distill the discussion about Live In Paris - a double CD recorded live on May 2, 1972 which had previously been released with a different mastering - by asking the reader whether s/he likes Soft Machine's Fifth; especially side two, which presented the work of John Marshall, the same drummer featured on Live In Paris.

This factor is important for still another issue: for technical reasons, this recording places the rhythm section as louder than the era's norm (we could jokingly talk about a "Can mix"), so we get a loud set of drums; Elton Dean's saxophones suffer a bit, while Mike Ratledge's organ solos are sometimes partially masked by Dean's piano backing. Hugh Hopper's bass is always clear.

Though it was destined to undergo further changes not too long after this concert, the group never sounds tired or as playing by the numbers. This is quite easy to see in the versions of those perennial classics - off the album Third - titled Slightly All The Time, Out-Bloody-Rageous and Facelift. But it's when playing the compositions off the still-new Fifth that the group sounds especially involved, and very convincing. All White, Drop and Pigling Bland are very good, but the peaks are to be found on the relaxed M.C. and the long As If. There are also two improvisations: And Sevens, with two electric pianos (hope I'm not wrong if I say that during this concert Dean plays more electric piano than on most other live recordings of the group); and the closing track, At Sixes, with the usual instrumentation.

Without a doubt Marshall is a technically more accomplished drummer than Wyatt. But whereas when Wyatt was in the group one had the impression that anything could happen, Marshall's kind of geometry (listen to the high-hat - and notice how different Hopper's work sounds for this) sometimes gives the impression of narrower horizons.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2004 | Sept. 5, 2004