Cuneiform tends to prefer Soft Machine's earliest and "classic" lineups, so the label's release of NDR Jazz Workshop: Hamburg, Germany 1973 might seem mysterious. The core group on this two-disc live CD/DVD package -- Mike Ratledge (keyboards), Karl Jenkins (reeds/keyboards), Roy Babbington (bass), John Marshall (drums) -- is often considered an also-ran in Softs history, appearing on the final CBS/Columbia outing Seven. Here, the band mainly plays music from the half-live/half-studio double-LP set Six. Bassist Hugh Hopper had just departed, replaced by Babbington, and sole original member Ratledge was beginning to split the writing duties roughly 50/50 with Jenkins. To some listeners, the idiosyncratic pleasures of early Soft Machine were fading away, replaced by a riff-based jazz-rock executed professionally but a bit too cleanly, lacking fire and sometimes just a tad too repetitive. Well, let's not be too harsh -- the emerging Jenkins could be a canny composer/arranger, with time signature quirks, a nice sense of melody and space, and instrumental voicings that made the Softs' transition into their latter-day jazz-rock era appear nearly seamless. And if you need evidence that Soft Machine circa 1973 could indeed be a hot property, here it is. Yes, Cuneiform had strong reasons for releasing this. As noted in Aymeric Leroy's liners, the German public broadcasting program's audio and video quality is "superb," and that's not an overstatement (kudos to Udi Koomran for audio restoration and mastering). One might quibble about moments when a soprano sax is too low in the mix, but for the most part NDR Jazz Workshop is well balanced and crystal clear in both vision and sound. The cameras glide in smooth tracking shots around the band, and also linger where they should when each musician is in the spotlight, although sometimes (characteristic of the era) pulling in tight on a face and sticking around too long there (hello, razor stubble).
The CD and DVD, which generally replicate one another, are both divided into two parts, the second portion truly coming alive with the arrivals of guests Gary Boyle on guitar and Art Themen on tenor and soprano saxophones -- Boyle's fleet-fingered, jagged runs and Themen's robust playing seem to fire up the others on jazz-rockers like the odd-metered "Stanley Stamp's Gibbon Album" and groove-based "Gesolreut." The latter is probably as funked up as the often cerebral Softs ever got, its central jam bracketed by a sax/keyboard riff that ends with an emphatic unison punch. Here played by the sextet, it's stretched to nearly 12 minutes, almost double the length of the quartet version on Six, with a sound that's more expansive, the band faster and more fluid beneath Boyle's animated bursts and Themen's buildup from clipped notes into extended phraseology and finally overblown upper-register squeals. Also nearly double the length of its studio incarnation (on the as-yet-unreleased Seven), "Down the Road" grooves more languidly, played here by the sextet but in audio form on the CD only. Short improvisational "Link" tracks nicely bridge the scored material, "Link 1" -- like the "Chloe and the Pirates" intro -- featuring Ratledge's patented spacy keyboard loops echoing off into the ether. The most avant-garde moments arrive with the DVD audio-only "bonus" tracks. Hugh Hopper pays a visit on a 15-and-a-half-minute version of his ominous fuzzed-up stop-start tape loop piece "1983"; recording difficulties transformed this full-band experiment into essentially a Hopper-Marshall duet, but it still has its moments. "Encore Improvisation/Stumble Reprise" is 11 minutes of exploratory jamming, moving from free to funk to space before shifting abruptly to a brief slam-bang unison finale.