Soft Machine Legacy’s Live Adventures draws you in slowly, almost imperceptibly. You hear a guitar drone, then Theo Travis’s lonesome flute over John Marshall’s lightly tinkling cymbals. John Etheridge’s increasingly assertive guitar adds more mystery. Thus begins “Has Riff II,” an elaborate variation on Mike Ratledge’s “As if” (previously heard on Legacy’s Live at the New Morning).
The album adds to the Soft tradition while including some of the band’s more familiar songs. Recorded live in Austria and Germany, it meets a receptive audience. Of the four neo-Softs, only Travis did not serve with the original group. The CD features the Soft Machine Seven rhythm section of Roy Babbington (bass) and the estimable John Marshall (drums), plus the aforementioned John Etheridge, who appeared on Softs and Paris (plus Rubber Riff).
Everyone performs well here: Travis adds a new dimension, being the Softs’ first flautist since Lyn Dobson played on Soft Machine Third (I personally would not count Land of Cockayne). He often gives the material a Jade Warrior-like feel. Babbington’s bass work is especially subtle and often lyrical; he never plays more than he has to or less than he needs to. Often confined to ostinatos in the past, he branches out admirably on this set. Marshall is, as always, wonderfully propulsive and supportive, really socking those tom-toms. John Etheridge frequently lets fly with rivers of notes that nonetheless tell stories. A more disciplined player than in the distant past, he has gained in maturity and depth.
All that said, Travis does sound a tad uncertain in certain places, specifically on sax. You wish he could put a bit more bite and sass into his playing, rather like Elton Dean, his predecessor (he does hold his own most of the time, however).
The CD features four new or less familiar originals by Etheridge and sax/flautist Travis, plus five Soft chestnuts. The eldest of these is a three-minute “Facelift,” the most recent a version of Karl Jenkins’ “The Nodder” from Live and Well in Paris. Some may balk at the shortened “Facelift” (originally a 19-minute extravaganza on Third), but it’s one of the album’s major highlights. After stating the theme, Travis and Etheridge perform a haunting and serpentine duet that will keep you riveted. Marshall’s soft drum rolls enhance the sense of drama.
Superbly recorded, the album lets you hear everything with clarity. The older material gets some energetic treatments, especially Mike Ratledge’s “Gesolreut,” one of my old favorites. John plays a rip-roaring solo that tears the guts out of the thing. “Song of Aeolus,” another of my great favorites, gets a welcome expansion and evocative soloing. Travis’s flute adds a new layer of pathos, with Etheridge’s guitar well evoking the loneliness and angst of the original (on which he played, of course).
The group gives Karl Jenkins’ “The Nodder” a relentless workout, with appropriately urgent (and fluid) sax and guitar work. Of the newer ones, Travis’s “The Last Day” is a standout, very moody and a fitting closer to the album. His flute floats over Etheridge’s rippling guitar in a way that makes you think the future may be as good as the past. Legacy on this occasion doesn’t quite have the edge of classic ‘60s/ ‘70s Soft recordings; it lacks that wildness that often suffused previous Softwork. At times it sounds almost polite. Nonetheless, it is a worthy addition to the Softs’ heritage.