England - Full Moon 164 - 01/30/10
Live at Henie Onstad Art Centre 1971
Reel Recordings/Smalltown Superjazzz
Wow, a brand new vintage Soft Machine live recording! Well, there have been numerous of the kind during the last 22 years or so. This double CD/LP is taken from the second of the band's two days residency at Henie Onstad Art Centre a bit outside Oslo city centre on 27 and 28 February 1971. It's not only the chauvinistic thing as a Norwegian and that it was recorded under intimate conditions (two sold out evenings; only about 200 or 300 were allowed to enter the small concert hall). Also, the sound quality is better than your average Soft Machine live recording from the late 1960s/early 1970s. It was recorded on reel-to-reel tapes by a professional hired for the occasion by the Art Centre. And the playing is also excellent. The late bassist Hugh Hopper was very pleased when he heard the tapes had been unearthed. He remembered the Norwegian concerts as a creative peak by this (relatively) stable line-up of the band. Alas, he didn't live long enough to see and hear the eventual album. Apart from Hugh, the band consisted of Robert Wyatt (drums - and vocals to some extent), Mike Ratledge (keyboards) and Elton Dean (saxes and piano) at this time.
However, there have been a couple of other high quality releases, most notably Virtually, recorded for Radio Bremen a couple of weeks later, and to some extent also BBC In Concert 1971 by Soft Machine & Heavy Friends (where the quartet had been augmented by well-known British jazz musicians, not least Ronnie Scott). Both have been available for several years and can be compared with and centre around many of the same pieces as at Høvikodden. But the Høvikodden tapes last about 40 minutes longer than the BBC tapes and about 17 minutes longer than Radio Bremen's. The sound of the Norwegian recording isn't perfect. The venue was so small that they didn't use a PA-system. The sound came directly from the musicians' amplifiers. Robert Wyatt's drums were probably not amplified at all and they aren't as loud as they ought to have been. His few moments of scat-chanting are also spoiled to some extent by distortion. This goes for some of the organ parts, too, but the organ is mainly played with fuzz effect, so it doesn't really matter. Otherwise the sound seems exemplary to me. The music shows a previous pop-psychedelic band that had developed into a rock and jazz combo on the verge of turning completely into a one-of-a-kind instrumental jazz orchestra. An eyewitness told me that Robert Wyatt consumed a bottle of whiskey backstage before one of the two concerts. I don't know if it had anything to do with his discontent with the band's musical direction and quarrels with his old friends. He was forced to leave the Soft Machine ship some six months later, an incident that still bothers him, it seems. Anyhow, it's not easy to discern any effects of his consumption in the rhythms and dynamics of this recording. With him the vocals and the impression of a jazz band with a human face was gone.
The band performed two long continuous sets of compositions, improvisations and experiments, one on each of the CDs. The sets are centred round excerpts of tracks off Soft's albums Third (June 1970), 4 (March 1971) and 5 (May 1972, recorded after Robert had left the group). It's a little bit late in the development of the band for my liking, I still hail Volume Two and Third as the studio masterpieces of the band. (Unfortunately there are few high quality recordings of the early incarnations of the band with Daevid Allen and Kevin Ayers aboard apart from the debut single and a session produced by Joe Boyd.) There are a bit too many jazz ramblings, mainly due to Elton's saxes and Mike's electric piano. But with prominent inclusions of tunes and riffs off Third, like "Facelift" and "Out-Bloody-Rageous" and some of the stuff off 4, they simply can't fail. (Alas again, the brightest gem of them all "Moon In June" was long gone from the Softs live repertoire by then.) And when the fuzz bass and organ kick in, the band sounds like no-one else, some highly original organic beast.
What really makes the Høvikodden album special, the Reel Recordings CD-version that is, is the inclusion of a CD-ROM. Soft Machine had been invited to the Art Centre in connection with an exhibition of works by Mark Boyle. Mark and his wife Joan had been making light effects and slide projections with oil and other fluids for Pink Floyd, Soft Machine in particular and other artists' performances from the hazy psychedelic days of late 1966 at the legendary UFO Club and onwards for a few years. The CD-ROM is stuffed with information about the Boyle family - Mark's art in particular, the music of Soft Machine (a bit too academic for my liking, though), a transcription of a programme at the BBC where the band is interviewed while experimenting with sound effects on "Eammon Andrews", amplification of Soft Machine, recording in general and a little bit about recording Soft Machine, too, the art centre, pictures... Exemplary!
So, all in all, Live at Henie Onstad Art Centre 1971 is very well worth checking out. Obligartory for the fanatics that know what we're dealing with. Hats off to Hans Voigt who dug out the reel-to-reel tapes in the Art Centre's archive almost ten years ago, Michael King who decided to go for it eventually
and several others!
Copyright © 2010 JP