I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Soft Machine were one of the MOST ORIGINAL AND UNDERRATED of the bands from the "golden age" of Fusion (1969-74), only not that many people seemed to know it, then or now. Maybe it’s because they’re British (quickly
: how many jazz musicians from the UK can you name who's not John McLaughlin?), perhaps it’s because they were identified as a "psychedelic," then a "progressive rock" band (their first incarnation included the loveably oddball guitarist/singer Kevin Ayers) and/or the Softs brand of Fusion leaned more towards the avant-garde side of jazz - further, it was guitar-less and funk-less.
The good folks at Cuneiform have been busy unearthing rare concert and studio material from the most vital and legendary period of Soft Machine: 1969-71, when the band was in a state of flux, personnel-wise. The "core" group consisted of Ratledge, Dean, Hopper and Wyatt - they performed as a quartet, then a quintet, a septet and (in the studio) a 10-piece band (give or take a player). Backwards collects the Machine in its quartet and septet line-ups, and for fans it’s quite a prize given how short-lived the 7-piece was. At their best, the Softs combined the immediate dynamics of rock and big band jazz, the daringly expressive, open-ended freedom of post-Ornette Coleman jazz (I detect Woody Herman in there as well!) and aspects of modern, post-John Cage classical/experimental music (especially the early minimalism of Terry Riley) - and the proof is right here. The disc kicks off with the kaleidoscopic 18-minute "Facelift," which features Hopper’s acidic, mondo-distorto bass (sometimes sounding like a guitar), Dean’s vocal, Rahsaan Roland Kirk-inflected saxello, Ratledge’s forceful, horn-like keyboards and Wyatt’s driving free-bop drumming at their respective creative peaks, achieving that rare balance of "freedom" and "structure." "Moon In June" (the shorter take) features Robert Wyatt’s contrapuntal, airy, evocative wordless vocals (slightly reminiscent of the late Jeanne Lee and Tony Williams) where he "sings" like a horn player playing through water (well, that’s what it sounds like). Elton Dean is one of those saxophonists who has taken the early-60s wail of Coltrane’s soprano sax and digested the influence so thoroughly that he’s made it his own. The two septet tracks have tart, wailing horn sections that recall Chris MacGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath - no surprise, as some of these fellows played with him. The band that was Soft Machine began during an era in rock where anything seemed possible, then evolved into a singular jazz group that approached their take on Fusion on their own terms: they never tried to "sound" American (funk-free, remember?) nor did they make any concessions to commerciality or jazz orthodoxy. To anyone who recalls when Fusion was a brave new style and/or a style reviled, or laments the seeming scarcity of bristly, imaginative Fusion stuff: you have to hear the Soft Machine, and this is a fine place to begin. (You diehard fans will get this no matter what anybody says, and well you should.)