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On paper, two British prog-rock musicians playing fully improvised live sets might have the makings of a dud. With no tricky melodies or riffs or heady chord changes to guide them, how could they possibly manage?
As it turns out, keyboarist Alan Gowen (National Health, Gilgamesh) — who died of leukemia at age 33 in 1981 — and bassist Hugh Hopper (Soft Machine) acquit themselves admirably. Recorded at two different live sessions in 1978 and ’80, the music is unpretentious and relaxed. The players prove themselves technically proficient and able improvisers. Gowen, who uses mostly analog electronic keyboards with some piano mixed in, shows real flash. At various points, his playing is reminiscent of Weather Report-era Joe Zawinul. The tandem makes good choices, too, by and large sticking to defined grooves and an overall ear-friendly approach.
The first three tracks, recorded live in Bracknell, England in 1980, include drummer Nigel Morris (East Wind, Isotope). “Floating Path,” all 18 minutes of it, unspools gradually, built around cymbal splashes and stately piano. It wanders into a tom-tom-driven beat as Gowen tinkers with some synth licks. The piece eventually devolves into an extended sequence of drums-meet-noise. The ensuing “What Now Exactly?” is the only real bomb among the eight pieces. Mired by a tape loop of muffled spoken words, its eight minutes amount to little more than wanton noodling. “Zaparoshti” rights the ship with a frenetic bop beat and quicksilver synth solo. The tune frays a bit, but that’s part of the fun.
The five tracks from ‘79 are the superior, jazzier ones. They were recorded during an informal afternoon jam in a tiny village Inn in the small town of Bress-sur-Grosne, France. For starters, Hopper is far more audible in this setting. His sinewy bass tone doesn’t provide much bottom, but he flies around the frets and matches his mate’s focus. Gowen plays mostly Rhodes (or the equivalent), and a bit of synth, allowing him to drill down and develop themes and ideas. The best example of this is the 17-minute, “a L’ouest,” most of which strolls along on a breezy swing groove. “Winged Trilby” jacks up the tempo into bop, with Hopper contributing well-executed walking bass lines.
The hour-long album has its lulls, dead spots and ill-advised indulgences, but, taken as a whole, it’s a cool chronicle of two musicians not known for their jazz acumen.
Feature photo of Alan Gowen courtesy muso.ai