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Soft Works — Abracadabra
(Moonjune Universal UICE-1029, 2003, CD)

Abracadabra Cover art

Any album that includes a Soft Machine connection and features players such as Hugh Hopper, Allan Holdsworth, and Elton Dean is due to attract quite a bit of attention. Abracadabra is a very intriguing disc from a band with amazing potential that is only partially realized. The music is very much in the jazz idiom with occasional flashes of fusion, progressive, and world music. It is really Elton Dean’s album as he dominates the heads and solos with his commanding presence and assertive tone. This is not to denigrate Holdsworth’s playing, but he does sound tentative at times when he is not stepping into the solo spotlight. It’s been nearly 30 years since Holdsworth astounded listeners with his playing on Soft Machine’s Bundles, and he shows considerably more maturity here with his tasteful comping and volume pedal work. The resulting album is often understated with a jazzy approach and plenty of mid-tempo tunes. Most of the compositions are by Hopper and Dean, but some recycled such as Phil Miller’s “Calyx” (here re-named “K-Licks”). Holdsworth’s slippery vibrato maintains a low profile on much of the album, but he takes off and ignites in a duo with master drummer John Marshall on the album’s most exciting track, “Madam Vintage.” The quartet creates some excellent music on Abracadabra, but the under-rehearsed sound in places makes one hope for a more focused follow-up that allows this remarkable quartet to fulfill their remarkable potential.

by David Ashcraft, Published 2003-08-01

Leave it to MoonJune Records executive Leonardo Pavkovic to unite former members of Soft Machine into a creditable improvising quartet. Rumors had been flying for almost two years prior as to who would be in this ultimate reunion project and the real surprise is how well this blend of players works together. I have to admit I had some reservations based on their tentative live performance at last year’s Progman Cometh festival in Seattle. Suffice it to say that a studio band that claims both saxophonist Elton Dean and guitarist Allan Holdsworth can exist and does establish a healthy musical dialog. Compositional duties fall primarily between Dean and bassist Hugh Hopper, some of them reprised from other projects. Probably the best pieces are when Holdsworth is kept in restraint with Dean carrying the lion’s share of the melodic weight as on “Baker’s Treat,” a tribute to veteran bassist Fred T. Baker. Hopper’s track, “First Trane,” and the title piece are somber reminders of the group’s legacy. Overall Holdsworth’s guitar parts are a bit reserved but are an appropriate fit (as heard on “Willie’s Knee”) by not emphasizing his incredible soloing ability on all the tracks. In summary, Soft Works looks to be a viable going concern for 2003 so let’s hope a full tour in support is in the planning phase with lots of rehearsal time to work out the kinks.

by Jeff Melton, Published 2003-08-01

A lot of excitement surrounded the formation of this band, whose early performances did not bode well, in how they were described as rather tilted towards wayward soloing. Holdsworth is the one member who has plied the most spotlighted path in his post-Soft Machine career, but his jazz pedigree has only gained for it. It is he, more than Dean, Hopper, or Marshall, who shows the most growth. Compositions on Abracadabra are split evenly between Dean and Hopper. Both though are loosely formed around cycling bass riffs, allowing for plenty of solo spots. I prefer Dean’s efforts, but only because he is constrained on these to keep the melody, and is discouraged from wailing away too long on sax. A version of Hatfield’s “K-Licks” gets tossed off in an amorphous open-ended manner that had me pining away for the original, even if Holdsworth’s thick harmonies gave it a semblance of new life. Part of what saves this from sounding like a simple jam session are the quiet sections, which display an acute sensitivity to textural flourishes and dynamic changes. Here, again, Holdsworth deserves the credit: the chromaticism he is playing with on synthaxe, coupled with his blinding solos on “normal” electric guitar help create the illusion of — what is otherwise sorely missing — a keyboardist. Soft Works does satisfy a jazz appetite, but may not fulfill those who hoped for something more closely resembling Soft Machine.

by Mike Ezzo, Published 2003-08-01

Filed under: New releases, Issue 27, 2003 releases

Related artist(s): Elton Dean, Hugh Hopper, Soft Machine, Soft Machine Legacy / Soft Works, Allan Holdsworth, John Marshall

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