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SOFT MACHINE - HØVIKODDEN 1971 4 x CD/ 4 x LP (Cuneiform Records) (part one)

For the first time the entire two nights of the legendary concert at the Henie- Onstad Art Centre near Oslo can be heard in glorious stereo. It is all the more significant because it was the last European tour of the classic quartet line-up of Mike Ratledge, Elton Dean, Hugh Hopper and Robert Wyatt.

It begins with ‘Facelift’, 7-minutes shorter than the classic “Third” album version (and Softs’ fans will have fun comparing all the different versions!). Ratledge’s distinctive Lowrey organ sound is quickly to the fore. ‘Virtually’, which would become a 20-minute four-part piece on “Fourth”, is around the same length, at 11:50, is more overtly Jazz because of Dean’s sax blowing and the choppy piano chords, Hugh Hopper’s bass lines veering from rock to fuzz, a reflective passage at around 5:30 featuring some amazing wah-wah electric piano. ‘Slightly All the Time’, at just over 9 minutes is half the length of the “Third” version and a great example of a pioneering redefinition of Jazz-Rock fusion, very different from the concurrent US version. ‘Fletcher’s Blemish’ (to appear on “Fourth”) has been known to stretch to 12 minutes (BBC Radio session) but is kept to a restrained 6:45, free form mostly (although there is always strong melodic content on Softs’ constructions). ‘Neo- Caliban Grides’ features some playful exchanges between sax and keys, intricate, counterpoint drumming and fragmented fuzz piano. Another classic from “Third”, ‘Out Bloody Rageous’ is halved in length (as it was during an April, 1971 residency at Ronnie Scott’s – these recordings are from 27th and 28th February), but all the main elements are there; it’s a pity that Dean’s excellent sax extemporisation is a little far back in the mix, although the clarity is commendable. Wyatt’s rumbling and clattering drums are marvellous alongside Ratledge’s insistent keyboard in an exhilarating rendition. The vocal improvisation by Wyatt that follows sounds so otherworldly!

‘Eammon Andrews’ (‘This is Your Life’ presenter, not the ‘bogeyman’ quizmaster Michael Miles musically depicted by HATFIELD AND THE NORTH) follows, then ‘All White’, a new composition that would appear on “Fifth” with Ratledge now playing a Fender Rhodes. ‘Kings and Queens’ (“Fourth”) follows, then a biting version of “Teeth” (Sorry! - actually it’s an outstanding piece of jazz rock fusion that briefly quotes ‘Freedom Jazz Dance’ with Wyatt and Hopper combining to amazing effect), around the same length as the album version would be. Finally, for the first part of this review there is “Pigling Bland”, a thoughtful piece with some delightful exchanges between Hopper’s sax and Ratledge’s keyboards, Hopper and Wyatt displaying supreme virtuosity. These concerts truly reveal Soft Machine in peak performance mode.

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