Thread-pulling: Jazz, Jazz Fusion and Free Jazz, via Soft Machine

One of the great things about our line of work is that we come into contact with different types of music every day. Sometimes a client will bring a record or a CD that sparks a conversation, which leads to a series of fruitful discoveries. Sometimes they'll simply drop a name of one of the instrumentalists into conversation, which gives a lead to follow. The result can be tremendous fun. That's how I developed an interest in Jazz beyond my initial exposure via Blue Note records

My entry point was Soft Machine, and specifically their fourth album 'Fourth', which marked the completion of their move away from psychedelic pop into purely instrumental work.

Soft Machine, named after William S Burroughs' book 'The Soft Machine' were one of the foundational 'Canterbury Scene' groups - so-called because of a group of talented and creative musicians based in and around Canterbury, in Kent, who collaborated with each other, starting in the late 1960s. It's not really worthwhile to try to define the sound or style of the scene, but common threads include jazz-like improvisation, and a degree of whimsy.

Fourth is, in places, a masterpiece. In others, a cacophony of noodling. The best tracks are Kings and Queens on the first side, and the four part exposition Virtually - both penned by Hugh Hopper.

When you find a record you like, with a little assiduous use of Tidal/Qobuz/Spotify and Wikipedia, you can begin to explore a whole new fractal world of music. I call this 'thread pulling'

Let's look at the musicians on Fourth:

  • Hugh Hopper - bass
  • Mike Ratledge - various keys
  • Robert Wyatt - drums
  • Elton Dean - alto sax and saxello
  • Roy Babbington - double bass
  • Mark Charig - cornet
  • Nic Evans - trombone
  • Jimmy Hastings - alto flute and bass clarinet
  • Alan Skidmore - tenor sax

Hugh Hopper

Along with Robert Hyatt, Hugh Hopper had been in The Daevid Allen Trio, and Canterbury Scene genesis band 'The Wilde Flowers', which spawned both Soft Machine and Caravan.

He stayed with Soft Machine until 1973, and subsequently collaborated with Gary Boyle on Isotope, and Alan Gowen on Gilgamesh. This gives two bands to explore - Isotope and Gilgamesh

Mike Ratledge

Mike Ratledge remained with Soft Machine for most of his career. Soft Machine Six wan British Jazz Album of the year in 1973. Six is interesting for being to point at which Karl Jenkins joined the band - who subsequently developed a reputation as a composer, beginning with Adiemus, and then The Armed Man: A mass for peace, and Requiem - all well worth of further attention, albeit no longer jazz.

Robert Wyatt

Robert was perhaps the least happy with Soft Machines move towards pure instrumentalism. Having been the vocalist on the earlier albums, he left the band in 1971, and formed Matching Mole, returning to a more progressive rock genre.

Elton Dean

Elton Dean played in The Keith Tippett Sextet, from which both Mark Charig and Nick Evans were drawn. Keith Tippet, pianist and composer, was instrumental in the evolution of jazz in the UK. His double album Septober Energy recorded by big band outfit Centipede is particularly worth exploring.

Elton Dean went on to form Ninesense, again featuring Mark Charig, Nick Evans, and Keith Tippett, and also Alan Skidmore - so more than 44% of the collaborators on Fourth. This moves more into the realm of 'Free Jazz'. If you can bend your mind to the concept - lengthy improvisations by talented musicians - the Ninesense Suite is a good example of the genre.

Roy Babbington

Double bassist Roy Babbington was a session musician, and played with Keith Tippett and Elton Dean, and was involved with Centipede. He remained with Soft Machine until Seven. He played with Nucleus, whose Elastic Rock was the winner of the first prize at the 1970 Montreux Jazz Festival.

Mark Charig

Mark Charig, trumpeter and cornet player, collaborated with Elton Dean and Keith Tippett on numerous projects. He also played with King Crimson, featuring on the title tracks of Islands and Lizard. A particularly interesting musical diversion is The Brotherhood of Breath - a largely South African big band, which again featured Nick Evans, Alan Skidmore and Elton Dean. Blending blues vibes with experimental Jazz, with a South African twist, it's fascinating listening.

Nick Evans

Nick Evans is in the same set of brass and woodwind players - featuring in the Keith Tippett bands, in Centipede, Brotherhood of Breath, and Elton Dean's Just Us and Ninesense. He also joined Mark Charig on King Crimson's Lizard. Through Brotherhood, he met Dudu Pukwana, another South African saxophonist, composer, and pianist. His 1975 release Diamond Express features Nick Evans, and is a delightful record.

Jimmy Hastings

Jimmy Hastings is a core Canterbury Scene musician - playing with Caravan, Soft Machine, Hatfield and the North, and National Health. More associated with Progressive Rock acts than Jazz Fusion, appearing in Trapeze, and working with Chris Squire, from Yes, he did also play with ISIHAC's Humph Lyttleton in his eight-piece jazz band.

Alan Skidmore

Alan Skidmore rounds up our Fourth personnel list. A professional tenor saxophonist at the age of sixteen, he played wirh Ronnie Scott in the 1960s. Another frequent collaborator with Elton Dean and Keith Tippett, he allows me to hand over the thread pulling to you, by introducing you to the American side of Jazz Fusion via one Chick Corea, with whom he played. Chick Corea, a jazz pianist, played with Miles Davis in the 1960s, on the revolutionary In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. He went on to found one of the seminal Jazz Fusion groups Return to Forever, whose album Romantic Warrior was, coincidently, the precise previous record I had listened to, before hearing Fourth - little did I know the connections or the threads I would subsequently find.

So what have we found by our thread pulling:

  • Isotope
  • Gilgamesh
  • Karl Jenkins
  • Centipede (Septober Enegery)
  • Ninesense (Ninesense Suite)
  • Nucleus (Elastic Rock)
  • The Brotherhood of Breath
  • Dudu Puwana (Diamond Express)
  • In a Silent Way
  • Bitches Brew
  • Return to Forever (Romantic Warrior)

Behold - a whole musical world has opened up. A world of fractal beauty in which each node will return yet more nodes.

Now it's your turn - let me give you a few threads to pull on, by listing some of the personnel, besides Miles himself on Bitches Brew:

  • Wayne Shorter
  • Dave Holland
  • Jack DeJohnette
  • John McLaughlin
  • Dave Holland

May you enjoy the delights of thread pulling.

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