Soft Machine: Switzerland 1974
Cuneiform Records

Some Soft Machine fans cite the earliest incarnation, the one featuring Robert Wyatt, as their favourite; others cite the outfit that produced the group's sixth and seventh albums as their preferred model, whereas still others favour the jazz-rock quintet featuring guitarist Alan Holdsworth that produced its eighth, Bundles. It's the latter that's represented on Switzerland 1974, issued by Cuneiform as a DVD-and-CD set and capturing the band at Congress Hall in Montreux on July 4 shortly before entering a London studio to record Bundles. Aside from a small number of pieces from the sixth (“Riff II,” “Lefty”) and seventh (“Penny Hitch”) studio recordings, much of the live release features tracks that appear on the eighth album, which makes for an interesting track-by-track comparison between the in-concert and studio versions.

The live set features Holdsworth, who joined Soft Machine in late 1973, alongside Mike Ratledge (Fender Rhodes, Lowrey organ, AKS synthesizer), Karl Jenkins (Fender Rhodes, piano, Hohner Pianet, soprano sax, oboe), Roy Babbington (electric six-string bass), and John Marshall (drums, percussion). On paper, the album appears to follow a long-form opener with a number of short pieces, but in fact the make-up of the hour-long recording feels suite-like from start to finish, given that “Hazard Profile” advances through a number of episodes during its seventeen-minute run. As it often does, the live context proves invigorating for the musicians, and the band plays with a looseness and spontaneity absent on a typical studio outing. The sound quality is generally good, though towards the end of “Peff” the left channel appears to briefly fade away, and crowd noise is unobtrusive save for a few errant whistles that pierce the subdued drift of “The Floating World.”

“Hazard Profile” bolts from the gate, the band locking into position immediately and Holdsworth demonstrating his remarkable technical facility. Hearing his six-string fluidity alongside Jenkins' soprano sax, Ratledge's electric piano, and Marshall's powerhouse drumming is often thrilling, as is the quintet's shape-shifting ability to segue from a heavy funk episode to one undertaken at a furious clip in 7/8 time. Babbington's the calm at the storm's center, and thankfully so as his solid pulse affords the others ample opportunity to play freely. Though “Bundles” and “Land of the Bag Snake” capture Holdsworth at his most dexterous, his playing doesn't tip the group balance so heavily in his favour that the others are reduced to backup musicians, although the dominant role enjoyed by Jenkins on the sixth and seventh albums is diminished (he does, however, unleash a searing oboe solo on “Peff”).

As always with a Soft Machine recording, there are surprises—the elegant piano interlude that follows the tumultuous opening part of “Hazard Profile,” for instance, and a drum solo in “LBO” that sees Marshall briefly transformed into a one-man Chinese percussion section. If the release of Bundles secured Soft Machine's status as an outfit that could sit comfortably alongside other leading fusion acts, among them Return To Forever and Isotope, the 1974 live set certainly goes a long way towards bolstering the credibility of that contention. It's puzzling why such an invaluable document sat on the shelf for four decades before seeing the light of day, and one expects Soft Machine devotees in particular will deem the recording indispensable.

April 2015