Vol. 1, Issue #14 August 4th - August 17th, 2006

Tiger Beat From Hell
By: Wilhelm Murg

Cool Fusion & The Soft Machine

Because they were British and played extended suites that took up whole sides of their albums, Soft Machine was uncomfortably jammed into the progressive rock bin in record stores along with Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream. They were actually a free jazz/ fusion ensemble that created a new form of music before it even had a name. Though Miles Davis was crowned as the father of fusion, Soft Machine’s style was arguably much freer and equally as influential. Cuneiform Records has just released “Grides,” a CD that features a previously unreleased concert recorded in Amsterdam in October 1970 by the band’s classic line-up, with a bonus DVD of a short appearance on “The Beat Club.” Over three decades later their ideas are still original and mesmerizing.

Free jazz started from the early blasts of energy by Ornette Coleman and his men, when they squawked and screamed like a band possessed by the Holy Spirit. When Coleman first played in New York City, Davis denounced him: “Hell, just listen to what he writes and how he plays. If you’re talking psychologically, the man’s all screwed up inside.” A few years later Davis would take Coleman’s “screwed up” concept of free jazz and make it rhythmic, melodic, and electric, beginning with his “In a Silent Way” sessions in 1968. The noisier free aspects would come in during the next sessions for “Bitches Brew” and continue for the next seven years. Davis disappeared for five years, due to illness, and returned in the early 1980s for what some fans considered his third renaissance, but was really an awful uninspired phase that opened the door for Kenny G., thus killing fusion forever as a serious art form.

Davis’ music became more impassioned, abstract, and demanding with every album from his free period. Ironically, he ended up outside of the marketing concept that grew up around the movement he founded. His former sideman, like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, would perfect the formula, but what started as a radical stance in the face of modern jazz soon turned into sappy, top forty, pop music. The dark ages for fusion, when it became “smooth jazz,” started in 1977 when Chuck Mangione dominated the pop charts with the title track from his album “Feels So Good”; a lot of people bought it because they thought it was the theme to “The Love Boat.” Jazz was no longer dangerous.

Using 20/20 hindsight, it’s obvious that the flowing part of the hit fusion formula was really inspired by Soft Machine, not Davis. Soft Machine cut their epic works into sections so that free and fusion jazz not only blended together, but also worked as separate entities in the composition. The mind-blowing part is that it’s near impossible to say where one style stops and the other begins; long segues blur the lines.

“Grides” was recorded in the middle of Soft Machine’s run of classic albums, right between “Third” and “Fourth,” and features keyboardist Mike Ratledge, bassist Hugh Hopper, saxophonist and keyboardist Elton Dean, and the legendary Robert Wyatt on drums – Wyatt has gone on to a unique underground solo career that mixes jazz with politically fueled rock.

The CD starts with “Facelift,” a regal tune that sounds like Zappa circa 1973 - or more properly, in 1973 Zappa sounded like Soft Machine circa 1970. The solos begin with Ratledge’s electric organ, ran through guitar effects. He takes some elbowroom and attacks the melody by the neck from the first note. Dean breaks into a free sax solo that first sounds like crying seagulls, but quickly transform into modern jazz, then the melody soars and the keyboards and drums give a perfect fusion rhythm and melody base while Ratledge flies toward the sun, using anything and everything at his disposal to let you know he’s reaching further and further inside to keep both the music and the listener airborne. Once the music is in full force, on “Virtually,” it seems to submerge underwater as Hopper’s bass rhythmically drifts to the rolling accents of Wyatt’s drums. While other bands would run straight to the next section, Soft Machine likes to look around once they reach a plateau. The saxophone creeps in and the bass becomes distorted, but the sonic landscape is still held by Wyatt’s steady accents, like bubbles coming to the surface filled with drum rolls, and droning keyboard chords – the very sound that every jazz ensemble would imitate throughout the seventies.

“Out-Bloody-Rageous” is like breaking into Eden, where key changes cause the music to roll over the listener like a pipeline, to use an old surfer’s term, giving hints that this is truly psychedelic jazz. The music slows down to a quiet part, but underneath you can feel the tension, like a great whale is just underneath your boat, then it breaks, only to submerge again in “Neo-Caliban Grides.” The bass and saxophone leave the kaleidoscopic sound to go into a free noise section that ends in a melody that sores back into the heavens, then comes back to earth to decompress with a free jazz blowing session for a finale. After sitting there quietly for a half-hour, the audience applauds and, like Sisyphus after being chanced down the hill by his rock, the band starts their ascension again on their second set – and they succeed in regaining the same ground, just as effortlessly, and maybe a little more melodic. Then they do an encore.

The Bonus CD is more of the same, and equally as brilliant. Though it is only a twenty-five minute set, it is beautifully photographed in overdone psychedelic video special effects. It’s even more dramatic to see Ratledge and Dean switch back and forth from keyboards to horns, and to see Wyatt do an effect laden vocal improvisation.

To a modern rock fans’ ears I’m sure this music is as indecipherable as Egyptian hieroglyphics, but for anyone interested in jazz, progressive rock, or simply the possibilities that music offers, “Grides” is worth investigating. Soft Machine’s music is made up of a hundred melodies strung together, and each is more compelling that the last one. If you get bored, just wait twenty seconds and a whole new line of ideas will come rushing forth. It’s an artifact from a more complex time, when jazz and rock were both about taking chances. I guess that’s why they named themselves after a William S. Burroughs cut-up novel. (CuniformRecords.com)

Tiger Beat From Hell Main Page

©2006 NONCO Media, L.L.C.