Is a Monday gig in Manchester the jazz musicians’ equivalent of football’s ‘rainy Tuesday night in Stoke’, (a term coined to indicate a tough date out in the wilds)? That is what was faced the Soft Machine for their eighth date of a sporadic tour which has taken them up and down the country this spring. Since the last time they were here, stalwart Roy Babbington has hung up his bass, whilst John Marshall is appearing only on gigs close to home, the result of ongoing health problems. This means that joining the current lineup of John Etheridge and Theo Travis are two nevertheless familiar faces: Fred Baker (now a permanent member of the band and with a stellar CV, not least as Phil Miller’s right hand man in In Cahoots – and co-author of the wonderful ‘Double Up 2’ recent release); and drummer Nic France, who I think appeared with the band on a recent live streamed performance.
The Band on the Wall, Manchester’s iconic jazz venue, has been refurbished since I last visited before COVID, with a new expanded bar area next door and an enlarged stage in the main hall, which the band appreciatively commented on. The talismanic old BOTW logo has sadly gone, but sound was crisp as ever, and with a few tickets unsold, there was a feeling of space in front of stage (blame that Monday night syndrome). Not that the band were daunted: it was clear from the roar of applause following the established set-opener ‘Hidden Details’ that the atmosphere was a step up from the tour’s previous gigs. There were new pieces from the Softs’ repertoire incorporated for the first time in my memory at least (‘Backwards’/’Noisette’ from ‘Third; ‘Penny Hitch’ from ‘Seven’; as well as ‘The Nodder’ from ‘Alive and Well in Paris’, a slightly downbeat finale to the first set), regular favourites such ‘Chloe and the Pirates’ and ‘Tales of Taliesin’; and deserved showcases for some of the best tracks from the very strong current album ‘Hidden Details’ including ‘Fourteen Hour Dream’.
Something about the even more familiar highlights in a moment, but a word or two first about the surprises: two extremely strong new pieces: an acknowledged nod to Sixties influences on Theo Travis’s open-ended ‘Fell to Earth’, and the muscular, weaving changes of John Etheridge’s ‘Other Doors’ where Nic France really stated what he brings to the band with some tight, up-front rhythms. It would be lovely to hear more of both of these tracks to get to know them better, first impressions were extremely favourable and suggested that despite line-up changes and COVID, the momentum of recent years is gathering apace again. Add to this a completely unexpected rendition of ‘Joy of a Toy’ (the Soft Machine track rather than Kevin Ayers’ solo continuation) essentially a showcase for the thunderous bass of Fred Baker, who throughout the night brought a dexterous, fluid, grooving feel to proceedings, with a joie de vivre never far from the surface.
Theo Travis alternated between strident tenor sax on the punchier pieces; beautiful floating flute on ‘Kings and Queens’, ‘Backwards’ and ‘Chloe’, often looped threefold; and keyboard accompaniment underneath many of John Etheridge’s guitar lines, although one of the advantages of having Fred Baker on board is a range of different harmonic alternatives to themes created by the two main soloists. John Etheridge has carved out a memorable mid-set trio of guitar pieces performed from his stool left of stage, a beautiful (and I think untitled) multi-layered guitar loop piece, followed by two lovely ballads from Hidden Details: ‘Heart off Guard’ and ‘Broken Hill’, but pride of place goes to the instantly recognizable riff of ‘Hazard Profile’, a platform for some quite mind-bending high end guitar heroics from Etheridge and outrageous fuzz-bass from Baker; and second encore ‘Gesolreut’ which gets ever more funky, squawky and tonight super extended to test the upper limits of the city centre curfew. As with Gong 9 days before in Hebden Bridge, the sense of an evolving two way connection between band and enthusiastic crowd was palpable: a rapturous reception early on in the performance is continually reciprocated as the band continue to push things just a little bit further. Here’s to many more Monday nights like this…
Many thanks to Joe Orban for the photographs used here
Of the 8 times I’ve seen the current incarnation of Gong in the last 5 years or so, the most memorable occasions are etched in the brain partly due to the particular circumstances of the venue: the triumphant arrival at Kozfest in 2016; the back-of-beyond vibe of the village hall in Allendale; and Beatherder festival where the band provided an antidote to the all-pervasive techno. But it doesn’t get too much more personally resonant for me than the intimate surrounds of Hebden Bridge Trades Club, a place where I played a small part in bringing Didier Malherbe to these shores with Hadouk, and have also seen Steve Hillage and Daevid Allen perform. It’s also just down the road from us.
This was 13 gigs into a continuous 14 day stretch on the band’s current UK tour, performing nightly 2 and a half hours sets, and one might expect the band to be flagging. On the contrary: Jonny Greene (of the essential support network, the Gong Appreciation Society) reckoned the band had just about reached their peak the previous night in York, whilst tonight a revved up band were beaming and talkative afterwards. Reports had been consistently coming in of this tour showcasing the best performances of the current band, and it would be interesting to see whether tonight’s gig would stack up.
Prior to the gig, the question for me was how the band would find something new to say… ‘The Universe Also Collapses’ is 3 years old now, and even the recent appearance of an excellent double live album ‘Pulsing Signals’ can’t hide the fact that COVID has curtailed plans to record a third album of new music, hopefully merely postponed until later this year. The band’s solution on this tour is to air a combination of new and revisited tracks from ‘Rejoice I’m Dead’, alongside some inspired plucking of material from the vaults, and more subtly, a little tweaking here and there in amongst the established set lists.
The Trades Club is small enough (capacity 150) and convivial enough to work your way through a number of different vantage points and gather your impressions without unduly annoying other punters. And my thoughts were these: tonight, the vibe was often Camembertish punky (witness ‘O Mother’and ‘Kapital’), swirly (thanks to a lovely trancey reworking of ‘Eternal Wheel’) and mesmeric (‘Selene’, ‘The Universe Also Collapses’). It was also testament to a ridiculously tight and well-honed performance of some highly intricate compositions. For me the highlight of the set was the completely unexpected rendition of ‘Through Restless Seas I Come’, with spine-shivering vocals from Kavus Torabi; with Ian East, wonderfully audible tonight, memorably adding soprano before the track breaks out. Other high notes was ‘Love Is How You Make It’ from Angel’s Egg, freshly plucked from the archives with Fabio Golfetti dexterously dealing with the tuned percussion lines on guitar. Plus of course the requisite mind-boggling Torabi solo on ‘Rejoice!’; and the phenomenal, often tribal drumming throughout of the increasingly invisible Cheb Nettles (tonight in industrial strength face mask)
When I spoke to my daughter this morning for the post-gig debrief, she asked me firstly how long the band had played for, and secondly whether they’d performed ‘Master Builder’. Somehow my answers to her questions got conflated and I clearly gave her the impression they’d performed ‘Master Builder’ for 150 minutes. One could be forgiven for thinking this sometimes, this piece assumes ever more epic proportions, tonight heralded by a beautiful melodic Dave Sturt fretless bass solo within the introductory invocation. I can’t tell you whereabouts this was in the setlist, or whether I have told you enough about the glissando guitar playing, the light show, the banter between band and audience or the sheer exultation within the audience, but it was that sort of night…
As part of the series of interviews for the Hugh Hopper biography I had the very great pleasure of having a Zoom conversation last month with Hugh’s fellow bass player Fred Baker. Fred, like me, is a Derbyshire lad and I’ve been a fan ever since I took my Dad to see him play alongside John Etheridge and Elton Dean in Fred’s native Chesterfield in the late Eighties. Fred, of course, replaced Hugh in In Cahoots and I saw him numerous times with the latter band, as well as a couple of duo gigs with Phil Miller, one of which, in Manchester, I helped promote.
Fred has just become the permanent bassist with Soft Machine, a band with whom he has played many times over the years, sitting in for extended periods for, firstly, Hugh Hopper, and latterly Roy Babbington. It was the perfect time to speak to him for not only are Soft Machine already a few dates into their latest tour (with John Etheridge, Theo Travis and a revolving drum seat incorporating John Marshall and Nic France), but also due to the appearance of the long awaited ‘Double Up 2’, a follow up to Phil and Fred’s fantastic first duo album almost three decades ago. This has been released thanks to the enduring generosity of Phil’s widow Herm, and the hard endeavours of her son Kyle, engineer Benj Lefevre, and of course Fred himself.
First we talked about how Fred has kept himself busy through lockdown
“I’m just catching up on things here. I spent time practicing the acoustic guitar and the acoustic bass when we had that first lockdown and even the second. I kept writing. I have to because I can’t play otherwise. Just got to keep the old fingers happening. My 60th birthday fell in the first lockdown, and I had planned to have a celebratory concert in Chesterfield’s iconic church ‘The Crooked Spire’. Originally were going to try and release the duo album and get John Etheridge and maybe Doug (Boyle) to come and play on some tracks to launch it, but we’re not doing that now. We’re going do some gigs though for it at some point. The Crooked Spire is magnificent. I mean, I’ve seen everything there, bell tours, some really nice organ recitals in there and I played percussion with the Youth Orchestra there in 76/77.
“I wanted to try and do a solo bass performance there with surround bass. The music is stuck in the vaults with Mark Randell, the chief engineer at Derby University. We’ve been recording it with surround sound so you get one string coming out of 5.1, all around you. This takes a lot of mixing just for one track!”
Double Up, a duo album from Fred and Phil Miller, for me is one of the crowning jewels of latter day Canterbury scene music, a relatively undiscovered and beautifully serene series f pieces which Phil and Fred replicated so beautifully live as a duo act. So what about Double Up 2 and what is its history?
“It was always on the backburner a bit. We did various work towards it over the years. We’d got some stuff already put on to ADATs. Luckily Herm managed to find these master tapes. We had to rescue them because we tried to play one back on Phil’s old ADAT machine and it started chewing it up! So me and Benj said, right, let’s get this done, so we got it all transferred professionally into WAV files and revived a lot of the stuff I knew was there. It was going back over about 25-30 years of stuff that had been transferred in various ways with bits missing, and we had to edit a few things together to make sense of it. Benj worked like a trojan on it, he was incredible.”
So was this always intended to be an immediate follow up to ‘Double Up’?
“The trouble was that we got so busy with the band (In Cahoots) it was really hard to fit things in. We did more work on it in the late Nineties and Noughties as Phil got more equipment, and invested in all that stuff to do the sound processing. But we had problems with that. As Phil got a bit ill, actually he was doing more bits and pieces for the duo than I was. We’d play bits in the garden. We always liked each other’s company, playing music and seeing what each other was up to, so we kept working.
“Some of those pieces that he’s played with other bands – I remember I finished one off in John Etheridge’s flat years and years ago as kind of a replacement for Underdub, quite an up-tempo thing. I remember doing some of the summer schools working with John (Etheridge) and I stayed at his flat for a couple of days in the early to mid 90s and finished this all off, this and came up with ‘Upside’
“Phil wanted to use it with the band but really I composed that as a duo piece. Some things have had a different life. Other things that were performed with an ensemble we’ve gone back to a duo version.
“Some things won’t appear on Double Up 2 that we tried live, like that amazing piece called ‘Flashpoint’ which was very intricate. But I’m going to do a demo for that for the (Phil Miller Legacy) site at some point. It’s a real finger-buster. When we recorded that for the album Conspiracy Theories I borrowed Richard Sinclair’s bass because mine was too hard to play, I had got the action too high!
Fans of Alan Gowen and Gilgamesh will also recognize the first piece…
“When we came and played in Manchester (the duo gig at the Star and Garter) we played Alan Gowen’s piece ‘Arriving Twice’ going into the song I wrote for my dad ‘Big Fred’– it was a lovely blend, reminiscent of Bach’s music. Benj managed to do a really good mix of those tracks so that all the parts come out well, it is played very straight, as it is written, so that ‘Arriving Twice’ and ‘Big Fred’ are almost what you would have heard live.
“Then there’s other tracks like ‘Upside’ and there are some great pieces on there like ‘Adagio for Fretless Bass’ which Phil was going to use as a string ensemble at some point in the future, like a solo bass with strings. A fantastic bass piece. There are also some experimental things at the end with loops and bits of crazy improv: ‘Looped Out.’. Another track is ‘Out There’ from one of the later In Cahoots albums ‘All That’. Then there’s a lovely piece ‘Folk Dance’ that Patrice and Eth did it at the memorial concert. It’s like a Spanish dance. Previously Phil changed the melody when he did it with Jack (Monck) and The Relatives but on Double Up 2 it’s really more like a lively Spanish piece with an outside section. We used my Spanish guitar. Phil had thought about that. In fact Phil had got this lovely 12 string which I now own, a Fender Acoustic. I’ve got an old 12 string but this is even nicer. Phil was going to play some tracks on the 12 string and then I would have played the other one but we never got round to it unfortunately.
“The challenges with the sound were to keep it interesting for people listening to the music. I think having different textures for guitars is always the thing, trying to get that acoustic thing to happen – to get the sound off the body rather than it being just a plug in PA sound. It has always been the thing for me, the most natural I can get. For me, in the duo format, the hardest thing is trying to incorporate all the parts that a bigger ensemble would normally play. It really makes you think in a different way, with an extra effort sometimes to make these parts work.
“The whole project is, thanks to Benj and to Herm for finding it. Dave Stewart has been very helpful in getting all the links with Burning Shed and technical help from Barbara Gaskin. That’s nice because it’s everybody doing a bit for Phil.”
We moved on to talk about the legacy of scores, music and performance which Herm, via Fred, has bequeathed to the Birmingham Conservatoire, where Fred has taught guitar and bass for a number of years.
“Jeremy Price, Head of Jazz suggested a Phil Miller Prize – having a competition for a solo guitar. At first it was very open, the idea was in its infancy. Then Herm said she wanted the students to learn to play a piece of Phil’music, so this is now what the competition is. One of the good things about lockdown is that I actually sat down and worked out how to arrange some of Phil’s pieces for solo guitar which we have filmed as masterclasses for the students. Pieces like ‘Phyrgian Blues’- because it works fantastically on the guitar as a solo piece if you work it all out correctly, and ‘Early Days’ which is a great bluesy thing with a lot of extra bits to it, with all those incredible changes. It proves how a lot of Phil’s music can be adapted for solo guitar. Since I’ve done the odd solo concert, or with my trio, I have got a much better hook on all this music, so I sat down to work on it, getting my hands into all sorts of knots!
“Lockdown has prevented the Phil Miller Prize event for the last 2 years since when it has developed to include a solo and a duo prize. The duo prize means that bass players can have a go at this as well. It means that bass players and guitars can get a set together. So hopefully this year this will happen.
“Herm really wanted to make it a night of Phil’s music and we thought it was a nice challenge and maybe other people would get interested in it. We have also decided to have a band, a legacy band playing Phil’s music, to include sax, trumpet trombone and keyboards as well, drummers, whatever. Maybe we could have different guests that could come and play, it could be John (Etheridge), it could be Fletch (Mark Fletcher) on kit, or Alex (Maguire) on keyboards. Every year I could get a guest to come and play. And the great thing about Birmingham is that it has got two proper Hammonds down there, so my intention is to use some Hammonds on tracks rather than synth or Rhodes.
“So the idea is that in addition to getting everything assessed we will get a night of Phil’s music. So: solo, duos and a band, which I will be directing and playing in. It should be the middle of June. It should be a great celebration!”
In terms of the Conservatoire, the ‘legacy’ is more than just a series of planned concerts and prizes, with the Keeper of the Archives: Dr Pedro Cravinho taking possession for the institution of a whole host of material, as he told me via email last year “Over the past year and a half, I have been involved in the process of transferring the Phil Miller collection from London to Birmingham. Now the collection is at the Faculty of Arts, Design and Media (ADM) Archive and soon I will resume the process of cataloguing it”.
Fred continues: “It’s all of Phil’s scores going back over time. It’s important we’ve got access to all this material so that if any student wants to study it, it is all going to be available in the vaults. They are going to get all the original scores – it’s all going to be computerized so everyone has got access to it. Also included are the huge amount of Phil’s Sebelius scores. Hopefully they can get into them all to see what is on there – preserved for infinity.
“In Cahoots did some lovely workshops in the old Conservatoire and I remember getting Elton up there and Jim and we did some specials with Doug Boyle as well. Whenever we had a tour I would try and get a slot so we could do something there. That’s where the connection started”.
Fred also talked about Phil’s music which he has already performed with his trio (containing Nick Twyman and Mickey O’Brien) (video) link, which he hopes to continue to perform. All in all a true legacy!
This album has simmered away in the background since I got it last October waiting for the right moment to fully assault itself on my senses. This is a fairly remarkable project, propelled by an often dense multi-instrumental mix of guitar, saxes and trumpet but dominated by the highly recognisable voice of Carla Diratz. Carla will be familiar to Facelift readers as the chanteuse on the superb ‘Diratz’ album alongside Dave Newhouse and Brett Hart, but also various other pared down releases over the past few years. For added Facelift interest, the bass player throughout is Gong’s Dave Sturt.
Where to start: it’s not just my recent live flirtation with Van der Graaf Generator which puts that band at the forefront of comparisons with the Archers of Sorrow, ‘The Scale’ is testing, progressive music refusing to adhere to any known category. Diratz’s voice is abrasive, heartfelt and often chills to the core; Martin Archer adds dual saxophone lines (on the eponymous opener at least) which recall David Jackson at his most melodic and often the guitar is thrashy, distorted and rocks out Hammill style.
But these are probably lazy comparisons: for the most part ‘The Scale’ finds a middle ground between structure and improvisation, as does much of Diratz’s work. For me the highlights are the relatively simple song lines and extremely catchy lines of ‘I Am With You’, but also ‘Dove Mi Hai Lasciate’ – (ecclesiastical trip hop anyone?) where the clearly defined backdrop just brings out the voice in more focus. I read somewhere else that Carla Diratz is unusual in that she can fluently switch between English and French in terms not just of delivery but in lyrical composition; add to that a florid smattering of Italian on ‘Dove’ and we find that as with the spine-tingling ‘Random Night’ on the Diratz album, those linguistics particularly suit her vocal palette. The searing guitar motif which lingers long after the main part of ‘Teen Dance’ has finished will also stick in your mind, whilst ‘Desert Prayer’ brings the album to a raucous grooving conclusion.
The guitar of Nick Robinson is superb throughout, no better than on the clipped rhythms of ‘I Am With You’ although he also opens up too Holdsworth style as a soloist for the final track. Best of the more unstructured pieces is ‘Mother’, a real pastiche of muted trumpet and guitar acoustics which opens out into an almost minstrellish fanfare, its storybook qualities putting me in mind of Gilli Smyth, whilst ‘The Nature of a Child’ has a slow Tortoise-like burn. Lots else to delve into here, not least the 3 ‘Etudes’, stark piano backdrops for the Diratz voice, and special mention should be given to the exceptional trumpet work of Charlotte Keefe in all its many guises. So much more as yet unexplored, testament to an album of real depth and complexity and an excellent showcase for the longstanding, innovative and somewhat underrecognized Discus label.