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Abracadabra by Soft Works

It’s always a joy to follow the divergent paths of musicians who, as far back as thirty years ago, shared a common purpose. It’s even more gratifying to see that, after all that time, they have grown and shifted, rather than repeat past successes in a formulaic fashion. Soft Works, a supergroup that reunites members of various incarnations of the 1970s British progressive jazz group Soft Machine delivers, with Abracadabra, a recording that pays respect to its improvisational roots while eschewing the obvious homage that many people have anticipated. Rather than meeting people’s expectations they have chosen to challenge them, and produce a set that, while still fusion music, owes far more to jazz than it does to rock.

Everyone has grown since their days with Soft Machine. Allan Holdsworth possibly the most, with respect to developing a completely unique harmonic sensibility that has resulted in an abstruse writing style, and, with its legato feel, sheets of sound flurries of notes and lack of attack, a guitar that sounds more like a horn. Bassist Hugh Hopper, through various groups of his own over the course of time, has walked away from the Avante, and has developed into a supportive and intuitive player. Saxophonist and pianist Elton Dean, while still continuing to pursue free jazz with his own groups, has also developed a more lyrical style. Drummer John Marshall, through work with groups including John Surman’s Quartet and the Achirana Trio with Vassilis Tsabropoulos and Arild Andersen, has developed a much lighter touch, and an ability to drive the music with more subtlety and aplomb.

Avoiding the riff-oriented sound that defined much of Soft Machine’s work, Abracadabra works more with texture. Holdsworth creates ambient backdrops with both his guitar and his Synthaxe. "Seven Formerly", a reinvention of Elton Dean’s Soft Head tune, "Seven For Lee", begins with a gentle free passage that has more atmosphere thanks to Holdsworth’s swelling chords, before moving into a 7/4 improvisation section where both Dean and Holdsworth deliver passionate solos.

Hugh Hopper’s "First Trane" is a modal excursion that allows Holdsworth to deliver a solo which pays homage to one of his primary influences. His chord work behind Dean is reminiscent of McCoy Tyner, but with more space. Marshall keeps things light with some fine brushwork, building things gradually with Hopper until he switches to sticks and the tune takes off into a more intense swing.

Speaking of swing, "Elsewhere", another Hopper composition, begins with a swelling chord solo from Holdsworth which moves into the most intensely swinging tune of the set. Freed from the compositional complexity of his own material, Holdsworth still provides a rhythmic backdrop that makes the entire piece move more liberally. With his trademark intervallic lines, Holdsworth delivers arguably the best solo on the record.

"K Licks", a reinvention of guitarist Phil Miller’s "Calyx", which first appeared on fellow Canterbury progressive rockers Hatfield and the North’s eponymous release, is a melodic piece that operates out of time. Hugh Hopper begins with his trademark fuzztone bass, and the piece has an overall feeling of melancholy. Marshall manages to keep things moving, ebbing and flowing with the changes, and responding to Dean’s more outward-looking solo.

"Baker’s Treat", a ballad from his last release, Moorsong, features tender melodic work from Dean, leading into a plaintiff solo which has Holdsworth revisiting some of the whammy bar work that has been so inspirational to a whole generation of guitarists.

"Willie’s Knee", also from Moorsong, is the funkiest tune on the album. Dean contributes one of his trademark Fender Rhodes solos, with Holdsworth creating a backdrop on Synthaxe before heading into a guitar solo that is reminiscent of the best work on Sixteen Men of Tain.

"Abracadabra", a Hopper/Marshall composition, starts with a free time passage that moves into an eastern-tinged groove that, while in time, manages to feel somehow out of time. The entire tune is a feature for Dean’s saxello.

The album closes with "Madame Vintage", a Holdsworth/Marshall duet that appears completely improvised. Marshall shows a degree of intuition that is all the more remarkable for the fact that the two players have not worked together since 1974’s Bundles.

Fans of Soft Machine may be put off at first by the changes that have taken place with all the players since their time working together thirty years ago. But Abracadabra is a fine recording of fusion jazz which will please followers of any or all of the contributing players, and attract new listeners as well. It is a testament to the fact that the best players do not sit still; they evolve, and Soft Works is a group that is all about growth.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Soft Works
  • CD Title: Abracadabra
  • Genre: Fusion
  • Year Released: 2003
  • Record Label: Tone Center
  • Rating: Four Stars
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