It is hard for me to think that it has been nearly 37 years since I was first awed by the guitar playing of Allan Holdsworth on the album ‘Feels Good to Me’ by Bill Bruford. His style was first shown with Soft Machine, and now we get to see it develop as part of the legendary Switzerland 1974 recording!
Musical Genre: Jazz-Rock Fusion
Artist: Soft Machine
Soft Machine were one of the greatest UK avant/jazz-rock bands of all time and their work, whether their earliest performances as a psychedelic band, who were contemporaries of, and shared stages with Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, all the way to being one of Europe’s best known ‘fusion’ bands, their work continues to be name-checked by today’s hip experimentalists.
By mid 1973, Soft Machine had gone through a tremendous amount of personnel turnover and a shifting in their sound over the previous year. The band now consisted of founding member Mike Ratledge (electric piano, synthesizer), Karls Jenkins (electric piano, piano, sax, oboe), Roy Babbington (electric bass) and John Marshall (drums and percussion). Having already collaborated with a guitarist, Gary Boyle (as documented on NDR Jazz Workshop), upon meeting guitarist Allan Holdsworth, then in the early stages of his professional career, in November, the group invited him to join the band, which he did, becoming the first guitarist to join the band in over 5 years!
The 70s were at once a heady yet troubled time in jazz. The music seemed to be reviled on all sides – fusion took off and attained near-commercial success but critical disdain, mainstream jazz was ignored and dwindled in popularity, and the avant-garde was critically acclaimed faced a shrinking audience that forced many artists abroad. Looking back, many critics changed their opinion and fusion is seen as cold and flashy, some avant-garde is seen as over-rated, whereas much of the mainstream music from the time is being rediscovered.
I find all of those assessments lacking, and Switzerland 1974 is a great example of why: it is certainly fusion, but definitely jazz, has loads of rock elements, and is anything but cold and calculated. This is jazz-rock fusion at its finest.
The Soft Machine line-up as noted above included Allan Holdsworth on guitar; Karl Jenkins on keyboards, soprano sax, and oboe; Mike Ratledge on Fender Rhodes piano, Lowrey organ, AKS synthesizer; Roy Babbington on electric 6-string bass; John Marshall on drums and percussion.
From the opening moments of Hazard Profile there is a building tension that explodes into a ferocious groove, then Jenkins takes the lead, playing notes across several bars as the rhythm section pulsates below – no virtuoso shenanigans here, just setting the tone. Then Holdsworth slowly starts his signature legato melodicism and before long you realize he is constructing a delicious melody but also tearing rapid-fire through impossible riffs. And then suddenly you’re more than six minutes into the song and
‘The Floating World’ is slow and restrained, with wordless vocals from Holdsworth against a wonderfully atmospheric repeated backdrop – a nice change after the epic start to the album! ‘Ealing Comedy’ features a great solo by Babbington, who switches from an introspective melodic bass tone to a thrashing distorted lead to adding a resonant filter on top before settling back in.
Bundles, the sole studio album from this line-up and my sole previous exposure to their work, lends the title track as well as five other songs to this recording. The quick 3 minute version (about the same as the studio version) tears along quickly but is a great song, featuring great ensemble work and of course more signature Holdsworth soloing – it is often hard to tell where the melody ends and his improvisation begins!
Holdsworth produces another incredible statement with ‘Land of the Bag Snake’, starting right out of the ending of Bundles. Again we have the intensity and note velocity increasing organically throughout the song, maintaining melodic focus and never feeling superfluous. The rest of the album is equally solid, from the oboe-fueled ‘The Man Who Waved at Trains’ to ‘Peff’ to ‘Lefty’ right through to the finale ‘Penny Hitch’. The finale leaves us with yet another incredible Holdsworth solo to remind us of the 180 degree change that he brought to the floundering group with his arrival.
There is no filler, no weak material, no mis-steps, just solid, well-played, essential material that I enjoy more every time I listen. Check out the video, preview the tracks on Amazon … and then buy it!
‘Quick Hit’ Song: “Hazard Profile” … this is an easy choice and perhaps a bit of a cop-out, because it pretty much has it all. Sprawling solos, intricate rhythms, loud and soft sections, and so on. But because it DOES have everything it also reflects why this is such a great album: Holdsworth is incredibly strong both as soloist and accompanist, Jenkins positively wails on his solo when you think things are coming to a close, and Babbington and Marshall lay down a driving groove that is forceful yet subtle.
Would I recommend?: Absolutely! From the very beginning this album is an onslaught of raw live jazz fusion. The level of musicianship, collaboration and spontaneous composition throughout the recording is incredible, making the release of the music and video something that fans of any form of improvised music should definitely check out.
Suggested audience: While it is obviously an easy choice for Soft Machine fans, I also highly recommend this for fans of anything by Allan Holdsworth, fans of prog rock, experimental improvised music and jazz-rock fusion.
Here is the trailer for the Soft Machine CD/DVD release: