A different set of “rules” apply to jazz than to rock. In rock – especially of the so-called classic variety – there’s endless contention as to what constitutes a “real” band. Is the current iteration of Yes legitimate, seeing as not one founding member is involved? (Leader Steve Howe joined around the time of the second LP, Time and a Word.) Jazz players and listeners seem to be less hung up on such matters, preferring to focus upon the quality of the music.
So it is that in 2023 we have a new album from Soft Machine. At the vanguard of the jazz-rock-prog universe when they began in 1966, Soft Machine was a leading light of the Canterbury music scene. Frequently appearing on bills with the like-minded (but very different) Pink Floyd, Soft Machine carved out a unique place in the world of music. Put perhaps too simply, they combined rock aesthetics to jazz sensibility (and, critically, jazz-level musical ability).
Soft Machine always had a revolving-door lineup. The original configuration included Mike Ratledge, Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers and David Allen. Subsequent lineup included such luminaries as Andy Summers (yes, that Andy Summers), Hugh Hopper, Elton Dean, Marck Charig, Allan Holdsworth and Percy Jones.
Not a single one of those names is involved with the current Soft Machine. So is this modern-day lineup legitimate? Oh, yes. Yes indeed. Beginning its run as Soft Machine Legacy, today the current group – a quartet – features two members who were with the band as far back as the mid ‘70s, and who played on important releases made during the group’s heyday.
The first heyday, anyway. The quality of these new recording is such that it rivals what Soft Machine did a half century ago. This lineup doesn’t attempt to reproduce or clone the sonic character of the Third-era lineup, or any other, for that matter. In that they’re following a proud tradition of collectives like the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, in which George Duke sounded not at all like Joe Zawinul, for example.
Andi n the jazz tradition, this Soft Machine revisits earlier works made under its name, applying current-day skills and inspiration to that material. To riff on the Adderley comparison, remakes of Bobby Timmons’ “This Here” on 1975’s Phenix are quite different from Adderley’s Riverside-era recording of the song from 1959. But if you appreciate Cannonball Adderley’s gifts, you need both.
So it is with some of the cuts on Other Doors, the new album from Soft Machine. This lineup – veterans John Etheridge (guitar) and John Marshall (drums) plus relative newcomers Theo Travis (all manner of instruments) and fretless bassist Bred Baker – takes on Kevin Ayers’ “Joy of a Toy,” originally heard on the very first Soft Machine LP. Seven (1973) featured “Penny Hitch,” and a new reading of that is here, too. The new versions emphasize the musical dexterity and ensemble playing of the current-day outfit, while remaining true to the larger historical aesthetic of the group.
Listeners who appreciate compelling instrumental music – but perhaps not so much jazz – may find Other Doors an excellent entry point into the world of Soft Machine. The hypnotic “Penny Hitch” owes as much to progressive rock or space-rock as it does to any sort of jazz. Etheridge’s guitar work is tuneful in the extreme.
The title track veers more toward jazz fusion territory, with a character reminiscent of (but most certainly not derivative of) Allan Holdsworth. The experimental “Crooked Usage” is closer to free jazz. The band’s reading of “Joy of a Toy” is forward looking, a neat trick for an arrangement that features the wah-wah pedal, a tool associated with the distant past. “A Flock of Holes” is a meditative, near-ambient piece. “Whisper Back” is a nearly acoustic guitar solo work. “Now! Is the Tine” is solo bass courtesy of guest player Roy Babbington, who was with the group from 1973-76 and 2015-2020. “Fell to Earth” is the most rockist tune, with distorted guitar in conversation with saxophone. The brief “Maybe Never” look back in time toward space-rock electronica. And the set end with the (perhaps pointedly titled) “Back in Season,” a piano-led meditation that showcases all of the players’ gifts. But then all 13 tracks do that to one degree or another.
As with all things jazz, change remains constant. Other Doors has been announced as the last Soft Machine to feature Marshall, who’s retiring. Asaf Sirkis has already taken over on drums with the touring band. And the brand and its legacy are in more than capable hands with the new lineup, and there’s every reason to expect more high quality music from Soft Machine in the years to come.