As anyone who’s been around a few years will know, life is full of little mysteries. Like, what’s the point of wasps? Why isn’t a building called a ‘built’? How fat would you need to be to be bullet-proof? And, most crucially, how on Earth does a pop writer go about trying to provide an objective critique of an hour-and-a-half long, live, wholly instrumental jazz fusion LP? Well, as it happens (but unfortunately only in the case of the latter), you’re about to find out.
By 1973, Soft Machine (the Softs and their “The” having parted ways with the release of Third three years previous) were already unrecognisable as the pioneeringly bizarre psychedelic pranksters responsible for two of the most unique albums of the late 1960s. 1968’s freewheeling song suite The Soft Machine was an ambitious, surreal, and wildly successful attempt by three white pop musicians to combine rock and roll energy with jazz complexity, whilst the unabashed Dadaism of the following year’s Volume Two pushed the envelope further, its 33 minutes a rollercoaster ride of erudite pop, quirky humour, and avante-garde experimentation (not to mention the slice of proto-technicolour lunacy that was February 1967’s “Love Makes Sweet Music”, a single which opens with a line which sounds, to quote Julian Cope, rather a lot like: “Ba-ba-baaa / Doodoodoodaadaadibblyahbah”; it’s “Tutti-Frutti”, Jim, but not as we know it).
But, alas, all great bands must evolve, and Soft Machine were no exception. While their former underground contemporaries variously trotted off and decided to invent space rock (the Floyd, Hawkwind), electronica (Arthur Brown), shock rock (Arthur Brown again), and prog (Tomorrow’s, and later Yes’s, Steve Howe), the three boys from Canterbury resolved their own destiny lay in improvisional, weird-time-signatured, 99% vocal-free jazz fusion noodling (well, rather Mike Ratledge did; by the time of the NDR concert, the moustachioed keyboardist held the position of the group’s last remaining founder member, Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt having both departed for pastures new at the beginning of the decade). And if that’s what you’re after, NDR Jazz Workshop — Hamburg, Germany, May 17, 1973, to give this latest live Softs release from Cuneiform its full title, definitely won’t disappoint.
It’s certainly solid fusion. The songs have titles like “Link 3a”, “Riff II”, and “Stanley Stamp’s Gibbon Album”. Keyboards are chiming and dissonant and sound precisely like the ‘Jazz Organ’ setting on my kids’ Casio Tonebank 101. The saxes involved appear to have two settings: wailing and silence. Drums are limited strictly to arrhythmic off-kilter fills and cymbal crashes. Solos from all parties are long and bountiful. The musicianship can’t faulted, and the sound quality is top notch. As an album, by, say, Return to Forever, it would be fine.
But it’s not. It’s an album by Soft Machine, and herein lies the problem. Coming from one of the most trailblazingly original bands of the rock era, this release seems to exist solely to confuse, bewilder, and sadden. Unlike The Soft Machine, Volume Two, and the harder-edged, live Bitches Brew-esque fusion of Third, NDR Jazz Workshop is no longer the sound of a band innovating. Quite the opposite, in fact; this is a document of a group of musicians who’ve reached the end of their logical musical progression and haven’t the foggiest where they’re supposed to go next.
If you want to hear what Ratledge and Co. were once capable of, give the superb Middle Earth Masters — another Cuneiform release which presents the original four-man lineup in concert at the London Middle Earth club in late 1967 — a spin, and there’s no way you’re ever going want to listen to Jazz Workshop again. Or, if you do really need a good live document of where the Canterbury scene’s head was at by by the uncertainty of the mid-’70s, pick yourself up a copy of the infinitely more listenable orchestral pomp of Caravan’s Caravan & the New Symphonia instead.
It’s difficult to say anything too positive about this album (aside from the fact it’s perfect cycling music, speaking from personal experience), but it would also be unfair to say anything too negative either. It is what it is, and fusion junkies and Softs aficionados will no doubt lap up this double CD and DVD set. But everybody else, especially those listeners not fond of straight jazz, should approach with extreme caution.