The Soft Works lineup is heard live for the first time.
Nearly two decades ago a dream team version of Soft Machine came together for a brief, golden moment. Abracadabra in Osaka is most of the planet’s first chance to finally hear them work their magic in front of an audience.
The groundbreaking jazz-rock journey that was Soft Machine’s initial run ended with 1981’s Land of Cockayne, with personnel including saxophonist / keyboardist Karl Jenkins, guitarist Alan Holdsworth and drummer John Marshall. After that, the trail went cold outside a one-off week-long stint of reunion shows in 1984 and another in 1999 under the name Software. The latter lineup included Marshall, sax/keyboards man Elton Dean, and bassist Hugh Hopper, all from the classic early-’70s lineup, plus legendary U.K. jazz pianist Keith Tippett.
AUDIO: Soft Machine Land of Cockayne (1981)
In 2002, booker, manager, and longtime Soft Machine lover Leonardo Pavkovic helped put Dean, Hopper and Marshall together with six-string demon Holdsworth, who first played with Soft Machine in ‘73 but never worked with Dean or Hopper. In 2003-4, they played a handful of gigs in Japan, Italy and Mexico before the mercurial Holdsworth ducked out. During their too-brief time together, they recorded the studio album Abracadabra, which became the maiden release for Pavkovic’s MoonJune Records. Not only does the label still thrive today, it has now presented us with the first-ever live album from that rarefied lineup, Abracadabra in Osaka.
In the years that followed Soft Works’ time together, all members but Marshall have passed away, making it even more special to have this document of their live work. Naturally, most of the tracks from their studio set make it into the set, and it’s fascinating to hear these tunes being given some additional breathing room. But we also get unique takes on a few songs from Soft Machine’s past — “Facelift” and “Kings and Queens” from the Softs’ milestone third and fourth albums, respectively, and “Calyx,” originated by the band’s Canterbury cousins Hatfield & The North with aid from Soft Machine co-founder Robert Wyatt.
For hardcore Soft Machine fans, it’s probably the most fascinating of all to hear the old tunes given a fresh coat of paint, especially when Holdsworth bringing his sui generis sound to the fore. He lays out on “Kings and Queens,” which evolves from its comparatively rough-and-tumble origins to something almost meditative, giving Dean a chance to show off the Coltrane-influenced side of his sound. “Facelift” feels radically different from its 1970 version, as Soft Works shaves off most of the fuzzed-out, post-psychedelic skronk in favor of something slinkier and more nuanced, even as Holdsworth dips into his seemingly bottomless bag of tricks to bring some new textures to the tune.
Holdsworth was one of the most shockingly original guitarists of his generation, and when he really leans on the gas, as on the opening cut, “Seven Formerly,” he combines fierceness and fluidity like nobody else. On “Abracadabra” however (which Marshall kicks off with a firestorm of his own), the thinking man’s guitar hero glides and glimmers instead, making deft melodic statements as if he had all the time in the world.
AUDIO: Soft Works Abracadabra (full album)
At various points over the course of the set, all four players generate enough electricity to power a small country. But still Abracabra in Osaka represents a spot in the Softs continuum more musically reflective and subtle than any point that preceded it. Top-tier chopsmeisters though the musicians may have been, they clearly felt no need to prove it all the time.
Combining that quality with the sheer sonic luxuriousness of the mix, which serves up the kind of sound a listener could get lost in, the album at times begins to feel almost like an ECM release. Anyone familiar with that august European jazz label’s penchant for crystalline aural perfection can key into the vibe Soft Works settles into here.
Years later, Soft Machine would proudly reclaim its original name, but the Soft Works period remains a potent part of the band’s story — and now it’s been granted an extra chapter fans should be eager to absorb.