Allan Holdsworth fans start drooling now. The late jazz guitar genius is at the top of his game on this superb live recording of a short-lived but celebrated offshoot of Soft Machine.
Canterbury aficionados who mourn the loss of sax player Elton Dean and bassist Hugh Hopper will also want to grab this double CD as Dean, particularly, is in full flow from start to finish. In fact, Abracadabra in Osaka serves as a fitting tribute to three of the most revered musicians in the jazzy environs of prog – and the fourth member of this quartet, the very much alive (and current Soft Machine drummer) John Marshal, is no slouch either.
First, some background for those of you not steeped in Canterbury lore. Soft Works came out of Soft Ware, which came out of Soft Machine, the granddaddy of Canterbury bands that burst on to the music scene in 1967. Initially led by Daevid Allen of Gong fame, Soft Machine tasted brief success as a three-piece with Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge and Hugh Hopper, touring Europe to great acclaim and even playing the Proms. Elton Dean joined for the third album, imaginatively entitled Third, and briefly played alongside John Marshall who occupied the drummer’s stool from 1971.
By the time Allan Holdsworth joined on guitar for 1975’s Bundles, only Ratledge was left from the original line-up and the band was being led by multi-instrumentalist and composer Karl Jenkins. Soft Machine called it a day in 1981 but both Dean and Hopper played in various Soft offshoots, eventually teaming up with Marshall and keyboard genius Keith Tippett in a one-off ensemble called Soft Ware.
Enter Leonardo Pakovic of MoonJune Records – named after a track on Third – and music journalist Ken Kubernik, who persuaded Holdsworth to work in a group setting again after two decades as a solo artist. The result was Soft Works, which recorded a studio album – Abracadabra, released in 2003 – and then played one gig in the US, four dates in Japan, five nights in Italy and one in Mexico…
This recording comes from the third night in Japan, at the Namba Hatch club in Osaka, and shows the band in absolutely top form, flying through a nearly two-hour set that leans heavily on the studio album but also includes old Soft Machine favourites Facelift and Kings & Queens, Robert Wyatt’s Calyx, a tribute to John Coltrane (labelled ‘First Train’ on my download files but actually First Trane) penned by Hugh Hopper and Holdsworth’s Alphrazallan, named after his anti-anxiety medication.
Were he still alive, the notoriously mercurial and pernickety Holdsworth would no doubt have wanted to completely re-record his guitar – I don’t think he was ever happy with anything he played. But to these ears his contributions are the work of a genius, from the moment he lets rip in opener Seven Formerly to the last dying notes of Facelift.
His notes cascade all over this recording like a quicksilver waterfall, flowing so fast it’s impossible to believe a human being can play like this with just eight fingers and two thumbs. In Seven Formerly he takes over from Dean’s sax and lifts the entire tune up into a different realm, building the excitement until the almost free-for-all ending. He performs the same trick in Alphrazallan but, in the more contemplative Baker’s Treat (dedicated to In Cahoots bassist Fred Thelonius Baker), he provides sensitive, muted chords for Elton Dean’s lyrical sax before launching into another spell-blinding solo.
In fact, Dean also deserves praise here – sometimes I find his solo work a bit harsh and abrasive, but he finds sweet melodic spots all over this album, perhaps inspired by Holdsworth. Hopper and Marshall are a bit overlooked, providing sterling support rather than indulging in their own flashy moments, but that’s how it should be – you can have too much instrumental brilliance, you know.
There are standout tracks all over the album, but I particularly want to draw your attention to the quartet’s versions of Soft Machine standards, Kings & Queens and Facelift. Both benefit from a more open, sparser treatment than the originals – the space between the instruments lends the former a mystical air, while the latter develops an insistent, menacing pulse.
Apparently, the original recording was a bit rough, with overloud drums, muffled guitar and a generally ‘boomy’ ambience, so three cheers and a tiger to Mark Wingfield, who brought out every note and nuance so the whole thing sounds like it was recorded yesterday.
All in all, this is an essential purchase for everyone who loves the Canterbury sound, Soft Machine in particular, and who believes Allan Holdsworth was one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time. In fact, it’s essential for anyone who loves good progressive jazz, full stop.
01. Seven Formerly (12:58)
02. Alphrazallan (10:12)
03. Elsewhere (7:12)
04. Baker’s Treat (8:47)
05. Calyx (6:22)
06. Kings & Queens (8:14)
07. Abracadabra (11:28)
08. Madam Vintage Suite (7:59)
09. Has Riff (9:37)
10. First Trane (9:20)
11. Facelift (13:22)
Total Time – 96:31
Elton Dean – Saxello, Alto Sax, Fender Rhodes
Allan Holdsworth – Guitar
Hugh Hopper – Bass
John Marshall – Drums
Record Label: MoonJune Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 1st December 2020
Recorded at Namba Hatch, Osaka (Japan) on 11th August 2003