SOFT MACHINE : 1966 - 2018

Soft Machine : One of the greatest UK avant/jazz-rock bands of all time.

Their work, from their earliest performances as a psychedelic band who were contemporaries of, and shared stages with, Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, all the way to being one of Europe's best known 'fusion' groups, has influenced several generations of bands, and continues to be name-checked by today's hip experimentalists.

Whilst the line-up of Soft Machine may have changed many times since the heady days of the late 1960’s, the band’s spirit of musical adventure, and the ease with which it freely avoids being pigeon holed and can move from powerful progressive jazz fusion to atmospheric psychedelia to free improvised jazz-rock to ambient loop music continues to make it both unique and totally contemporary.

Soft Machine 2019

Friday was pretty chilled. When arriving in Japan one expects the crazy night is day and day is night topsy turvy world of jet lag, as so beautifully portrayed in the Bill Murray film ‘Lost in Translation’ and this is exactly what happened. We stayed up late on Thursday but then I could not sleep. When I did, however, I woke up at 6am. Which is UK 10pm the night before. Eh?! I got up at about 7.30am and ventured to take a shower. I have observed that however many hotels you stay in when on tour in however many countries, you never see the same shower system twice. They are always different. In this hotel there was a shower in a wet room with a glass door. and also windows into the bedroom and facing the high rise blocks opposite. I knew this would mean that water would get everywhere (with additional opportunity for maximum public humiliation) so entered with trepidation. There was a nozzle just above the floor and two hand held shower hoses neither pointing anywhere near the bath tub. With three temperature and pressure knobs, I was keen to control this beast and turned the knobs slowly to make sure I knew what controlled what, and where the water was going to come from. What I did not see was the massive rain shower head in the ceiling that sprayed freezing water all over me. It was a shock, and not a pleasant one. Argh!

Breakfast was fab’, if a little curious. Usual eggs, sausage, croissant, juice, fruit and coffee. Yes, but also Japanese cuisine including Miso soup, Chinese porridge, green beans in peanut and sesame sauce, and various fried, pickled and boiled dishes, not to mention the matcha green tea cake, amazing vegetable smoothie...and err...conger eel.. I played it safe and did not try the less familiar dishes, so it was really good. On a previous Japan trip I remember seeing whale meat offered in a breakfast buffet but thankfully not here.

I took it easy during the day going for a short walk in a beautiful local park in Tokyo midtown, reading and meeting up with the others for coffee. We actually all went back to walk round the same park with it’s lake, it’s rest house and sculpted gardens. There was a deafening roar of insects and one particular large cicada (I think) which sounded like a cross between a chainsaw played through a wah wah pedal and the screeching alien that burst out of John Hurt’s stomach in the first ‘Alien’ film by Ridley Scott. It was an unbelievable sound.

Unfortunately John Marshall’s suitcase had still not arrived and later in the day we were informed that the airline ‘had lost track of it - they had no idea where it was at all...’. Hats off to John, he took it well and just got on with it, working out where to get new drum sticks from and replacement clothes etc. Later, dinner was in a recommended Japanese restaurant and about ten of us went. We were later to be joined by the New York jazz guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg who was in town playing with organist Lonnie Smith. Cool guy and interesting stories were told about various jazz players on the scene and shared experiences in the music world. We later went to a small bar where there were instruments set up and Gary Husband and John Etheridge had a free form improv’ session which I joined in with on the Fender Rhodes piano there. Some fast and furious playing ensued which sounded great to me but the bar owner said ‘play something nice, more smooth please....,’ so obligingly Gary got on the piano and duetted on the song ‘Lover Man’ with John on guitar which was beautiful.

The next day was our first two gigs at the Billboard Live Club and soundcheck was at 1pm. The heatwave was breaking and the forecast was for a typhoon -apparently not uncommon in Tokyo in July. This duly arrived with its heavy winds and rainstorms. We set our gear up in the club and annoyingly one of my effects pedals for the electric piano loops, wah wah, and tremolo had stopped working. No sign of life from the control panel, and buttons flashing and changing colour and settings at random. No.....! I had to rethink what I was going to do on the various pieces and I borrowed a spare small looping pedal that John Etheridge fortunately had in his case. I reminded myself how to use it. The gigs themselves went well and it was great having the addition of Gary Husband on piano and keyboards broadening the band’s sound. We played a lot of material from the new album ‘Hidden Details’ for the very first time on a gig. Most of it went very well but there were a few things we knew we would need to look at again before tomorrow’s gigs. The audiences were lovely and very enthusiastic. We got to meet many of them after in an organised ‘meet and greet‘ CD signing session. Then an evening Glenfiddich in a local bar with the guys and off to bed at about 2.00am.

I woke up feeling quite awake and assumed I had missed breakfast which ends at 10am. I looked at my watch....and it was 5.16am! So weird...it made no sense at all to me. I got up around 7.30am for breakfast and met the others there. I mentioned I had heard what I thought was an early morning police chase with a megaphone, and John Etheridge said he had heard the sound and thought it was actually an earthquake warning in the street. Fortunately there was to be no earthquake this morning. To stretch my legs, I went for a walk on the Main Street, making sure I turned no corners so I would not get lost. I charged off just taking in the sights and sounds of downtown Roppongi. The amazing thing about walking around Tokyo is you see lots of modern buildings and normal city sights and then suddenly you can come across something amazing, like a temple, a shrine or an ancient palace or garden. I happened to chance upon a preserved residence of a famous Japanese General called Nogi, which was kept as it had been in 1902. Incredibly, when his master, the Emperor of Japan died in 1912, he considered it his loyal duty for him and his wife to commit ritual suicide to follow their emperor to the grave. Talk about loyalty, duty, and honour! And then there is the question of his wife agreeing to commit suicide too because of her husband’s job. Wow.

The two gigs today went well. Again at 4.30pm and 7.30pm. The organisation of the concerts, the club, the meals and the signing of CDs afterwards was immaculate and made things easier for us to concentrate on the matter in hand - playing the gigs. We changed the set lists a little to make the sets flow better, and the new orders we felt were an improvement. Also, tracks that had gone slightly wrong the previous day were sorted. Everyone played great and again it was a joy to have Gary Husband playing with us.

After the gig when we got back to the hotel, John Marshall’s suitcase had finally turned up. Phew! Just in time to put it on a plane to Osaka tomorrow for our two gigs at Billboard Live, Osaka. I do hope it gets there...

Here's a clip, shot by Leonardo, of Hazard Profile in Roppongi, courtesy of Soft Machine: John Etheridge, Theo Travis, Gary Husband, Roy Banbington, John Marshall.

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