Live in Paris
By May 2, 1972, when Soft Machine appeared at the Paris Olympia, the band had already lost founding member Robert Wyatt and had contracted from a lineup with full horn section down to a quartet with saxophonist Elton Dean. They had also recently replaced drummer Phil Howard with John Marshall, a decision made by bassist Hugh Hopper and keyboardist Mike Ratledge without input from Dean. Howard was central to Dean's plans to shift the band from a progressive rock band into a largely improvisational, jazzlike unit. (A disillusioned Dean would only play out the string of concert commitments, including this one, before leaving himself.)
Soft Machine must have stumped the crowd as it performed as part of pop fest. A decently recorded complete performance from the band, Live in Paris suggests that, despite the new drummer, the Howard era was still leaving a mark. Soft Machine tunes featuring tight, complicated arrangements were left off the set list, there are no vocals and the band focused almost exclusively on open ended, long-form material culled from the studio records Third and Fifth. Dean's buzzing, terse saxello and soprano saxophone parts are the primary element here. Hopper and Ratledge give the music its character with brooding, simple vamps from the former and unsettled, churning chord sequences from the latter. The band lets the dark clouds break now and again, at times with a sound remarkably close to ambient. But even at their most sour, they still generate energy thanks to Marshall's drumming.
The best moments come when Dean feeds off of the focused rumble from his chosen drummer's replacement. Though creaky in some places and certainly dated, Live in Paris is much more than an archival curio and deserves to be heard by an audience greater than long-time fans.