wed 21/08/2019

John Etheridge and the Soft Machine Legacy with Keith Tippett, Pizza Express | reviews, news & interviews

John Etheridge and the Soft Machine Legacy with Keith Tippett, Pizza Express

John Etheridge and the Soft Machine Legacy with Keith Tippett, Pizza Express

Ethereal prog meets jazz for one of the most versatile guitarists around

John Etheridge: Soft Machine revisited

Some people have all the luck. Listening to John Etheridge’s self-deprecating description of how his career has progressed (in interviews such as Radio 3‘s Jazz Library, or at a gig, when he is a disarmingly open host), you would think he had stumbled upon Stephane Grapelli and Nigel Kennedy (to name merely the most famous of his many stellar collaborators) while out for a pint of milk. What sounds like luck is of course talent, and last week, during his annual Pizza Express residency, he showed exactly why he is one of the most skilful and versatile guitarists of his generation.

Soft Machine went through more incarnations than Dr Who in the seventies, so the idea of a definitive re-formation is misleading, though with its current line-up of Etheridge, bassist Roy Babbington and drummer John Marshall, Soft Machine Legacy now contains three-fifths of the group that released the iconic Softs in 1976. Only saxophonist Theo Travis is new. The "legacy" tag is also ambiguous, too, since they don’t perform an inherited body of work, but a vigorous combination of old and new.

The range of sounds involved was much wider and subtler than with much free improvisation

Etheridge’s pulsing, meaty rock guitar set the tone, with Travis’ sax and flute (he alternated very effectively) in hot pursuit, teasing it, writhing and flirting, then standing off. One of the delights of jazz-rock is the opportunity to hear the machismo of the rock guitar subjected to a jazzy interrogation, and this pair gave a compelling demonstration. The first set continued to mix prog rock’s meandering phrases with jazzier experiment in sound textures with "Voyage Beyond Seven", a new piece by Travis for the band’s latest release, Burden of Proof, exploring a fantastical world of ethereal electronic sound in which jazz and prog rock cohabit.

The addition of distinguished pianist Keith Tippett in the second set gave the band an extra harmonic and rhythmical dimension, and with Tippett’s free jazz expertise, the sound shifted definitively to the avant-garde. Tippett dazzled with mesmeric Eastern harmonies, explosive improvised solos of questing dissonance, and a range of trickery inside the piano. The freer structure gave Marshall the chance to dazzle with some delicate rim sounds, while Babbington had a solo of funky, squirming power. Travis responded to the change of genre with some sumptuously controlled fluttering flute. While the freedom of the group’s improvisation was uncompromising, the range of sounds involved was much wider and subtler than with much free improvisation, and the result was beautifully textured.

By the end of the second set Soft Machine Legacy had given a festival’s worth of variety in a single evening. The band’s partnership with Tippett sounded so inspired that I assumed he knew them of old. In fact, the partnership is a new one, only premiering at last year’s Frankfurt Jazz Festival. Another piece of Etheridge’s good fortune, perhaps, or an example of a consummate musician’s expert judgement?  

Soft Machine went through more incarnations than Dr Who in the Seventies

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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