American experience - Melody Maker - August 14, 1971
by RICHARD WILLIAMS
Soft Machine's Elton
Dean talks about the
band's recent U.S. tour
Soft Machine may have missed playing at the Newport Jazz Festival on their recent American tour, but they did play a couple of concerts with Miles Davis, and Ornette Coleman did host a couple of parties in their honour at his famous loft home on Prince Street, New York. So it would not go amiss to say that, even allowing for enthusiastic exaggeration, the band made something of a stir during their visit.
That's a far cry from their previous American experience, three years back, when they toured coast-to-coast with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. That little lot was such a heavy gig that the band folded under the pressure, and didn't come back together for several months. Elton Dean wasn't with the band then. This was his first look at the States. and he says: “I can really understand how the band fell apart last time. Seven weeks of playing every night in America is just unimaginable. It must have been hell. Our tour was fairly leisurely, by comparison, although it didn't really feel that way.”
Newport was supposed to be their first port of call, but the riots put paid to that. As it happens it was probably just as well, because they had a lot of trouble with their hired American equipment, which frequently put paid to Robert's vocals. These problems manifested themselves at their eventual first gig, in the Gaslight in Greenwich Village. Had Newport not been cancelled, they'd have been faced with the embarrassment of equipment hassles on a very prestigious gig.
It was at the Gaslight that Ornette first came to hear them. “I think somebody had played him ‘Third’,” says Elton, “and he dug it so he came down to listen.” Coleman was so impressed that he immediately organised two well-attended parties for them.
Their next stop was also in the Village, at the Beacon Theatre, where they played the concerts with Miles Davis. Elton enjoyed Miles’ band, even though the sound balance was poor and the trumpeter appeared to have lost some interest in serious music. But the band which impressed him most in New York was John McLaughlin's new outfit, which includes violinist Jerry Goodman from Flock, bassist Rick Laird, and drummer Billy Cobham. Apparently Cobham had turned down the chance of joining Miles’ band, and there's talk that the McLaughlin band may tour Europe with the Softs sometime in the near future.
An amusing experience for Elton and the others came in Detroit, where they played bottom of the bill to a local band called Savage Grace and our own Yes. “It was a nice change, being at the bottom. We played pretty well, and the audience dug — there was a lot of shouting going on, lots of enthusiasm.”
Then they treked down to Texas, where they played in Houston and San Antonio — which, as somebody next to me said, conjures visions of a super-serious Ratledge playing some fantastically complex improvisation while people in buckskin are shooting off revolvers through the roof, pushing other people in buckskin through the bannisters, and yelling “Yeah!” “Actually not many people came to hear us there, because we were hardly known at all, but those who did come really seemed to like it. Then we went to Cleveland, and the last gig was somewhere in upstate New York. It was a disaster — the show started late and the owner of the cinema came on stage and stopped us playing. I suppose he wanted to get home to bed.”
“Musically, all the gigs were pretty good, and at times we played as well as we've ever played as individuals. Quite a lot of the time we agreed as a group, as well.”
The observant will have noticed that Elton is also running his own band, with Mark Charig (cornet), Neville Whitehead (bass), and Phil Howard (drums). Recently, it's been expanded to a quintet, with the addition of Softs roadie Jeff Green on guitar. “I find that I need the quintet, as well as the Soft,” he says. “I'd like to do much more work with it. It's the spontaneous thing. The Soft Machine has loosened up a lot, but the original conception still exists. There's a lot of freedom inside that, but it's a change to get back to something with no preparation at all.”
Elton's own album has been delayed a little, because of a hang-up over printing the sleeve, but it should be out in a few weeks. It is, he says, a blowing album, with very little writing, and features the quartet with the addition of Ratledge and Roy Babbington on bass. The leader is now playing a lot of electric piano, with both his bands. He learned the piano when he was a child, but only returned to it a couple of years ago.
Although Ratledge still uses the Hohner Pianet keyboard atop his organ for written passages, much of the music now consists of duets between Elton and Mike on Fender Rhodes instruments. “Those instruments have such a lovely sound,” says Elton. “It's very beautiful, and I enjoy playing that way a great deal now. In fact I play piano in the quintet as much as I play alto.”