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Soft Machine Across the World. Part 2


Life in Tokyo. 29 July 2018

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.

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Soft Machine Across the World. Part 1

Return to Japan. 26 July 2018.

And so the big tour begins. On Wednesday, I met up with band members John Etheridge, Roy Babbington and John Marshall at London Heathrow Terminal 2 for our trip to Japan. In fact our fourth trip to that fantastical, intriguing, beautiful and curious country where music is so very much appreciated and up to the minute advanced technology coexists with certain very traditional cultural values. I have brought a book to read by Murakami (Norwegian Wood) which may give additional insight into life in Japan.

We met at one of the many restaurants in the Terminal and whilst paying our bill I received a helpful e mail from the airline 'Your flight has been cancelled'. Oh joy, here we go, thought I. For this trip we were flying via Frankfurt, so there were more opportunities for things to go wrong than usual. We were told to collect our luggage from the arrivals hall baggage claim and ventured to do so. Unfortunately three of our cases never came off the belt and along with several other irate passengers we were told (for two hours) the belt was broken, our luggage was somewhere else half a mile away and it 'should' come on belt four...or seven...or three 'soon'. One of our number (whose bag did appear) had previously decided to upgrade to Premium Economy and he had been allocated a flight on another airline direct to Tokyo, so he went, whilst we waited for our cases. Eventually they did arrive and we were told to go back to Departures and arrange another flight. This took ages but we did it and then got a shuttle to another Terminal from where we were to fly to Paris. We were told that in Paris we needed to get new boarding passes for the second leg of the journey and 'probably' would not have to collect our cases and recheck them in. Then wait the wait for our flight. Well we got to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport and walked and walked and walked as the airport is huge. However no one knew about the cases and although I eventually got my boarding pass, two of us were told the flight was overbooked, so it was not definite they would get on the plane! It was now twelve hours since I had left home and we were still not on our way to Japan. At nearly midnight we boarded the plane to Tokyo and I found my seat. Being a tall person, sitting cramped in Economy for twelve hour flights is no fun, so you can imagine my sheer delight at finding out I had been given a bulk head seat. No one in front of me, no having to say 'excuse me' or wake someone up every time I wanted to stand up, and enough leg room to stretch out. That is worth a small fortune and boy did I appreciate it.

So now, after our twenty six hour journey, we are all here in Roppongi, Tokyo. I first came here an amazing twenty one years ago on a JBK tour - with the wonderful Steve Jansen, Richard Barbieri, Mick Karn (RIP) and Steven Wilson. It was for a month all round Japan and an amazing tour with other artists such as DJ Krush and Sugizo. It was the first time I toured with Steven Wilson and we have been friends ever since. All the guys were great fun and the music fabulous and I have very fond memories of that crazy time. I have toured in Japan eight times now - the other times being with Gong and Soft Machine. I remember one trip with Gong was to the Mount Fuji rock festival alongside Paul Weller and Oasis. I will always remember seeing Liam Gallagher walk up to Passport control at the airport with the biggest cockiest swagger you can imagine. It could only have been him and it made me laugh.

Last night we went for some sashimi, noodles and tempura at the most buzzing vibey restaurant called Eat Tokyo, humming with young professionals shooting the breeze and relaxing after a day in the office. Curiously there were few mobile phones out, lots of people smoking (where do you see that in restaurants these days?) and it was incredibly loud with the sound of chat and laughter. Then a quick nightcap at a music bar called 'SoftWind' (well we are Soft Machine and I am the wind player, so it seemed logical). The bar was on the fifth floor of a block, tiny and looked like it could hold about 20 people. They often have duos playing either classical music or Japanese traditional music there. The bar owner got very excited when we said we were the band Soft Machine, and after googling us to check our story out, he asked us to sign autographs before giving us all free drinks and cake!

Today we acclimatise and the first gig is tomorrow at Billboard Live, Tokyo. We are playing with a special guest - the incredible talent that is Gary Husband, who is playing piano with us. Really looking forward to it all

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Memory Lane Monday - 'The Crow Road'

Twenty one years ago I first read the book 'The Crow Road' by Scottish author Iain Banks. I thought the book was fab' as it combined menace, dark humour and an interesting take on the relationships between the characters. I was so taken with the book that I named a track I was writing for my 'Secret Island' album after it. I also thought the title fitted the music because of its multi-layers, its rollercoaster nature and its unusual twists and turns. The Crow Road is actually a road in West Glasgow (which I have subsequently driven on many times on journeys up to the Scottish Highlands) but it is also an expression for death, as in 'He's away the Crow Road'.
I subsequently read many of the author's other great books and through a mutual acquaintance we struck up a brief correspondence and I sent him the album which included the track 'The Crow Road'. He said he liked it which was very gratifying. I got to meet him a couple of times and was invited to one of his birthday parties in a pub in London which was fun.

The track 'The Crow Road' is a bit of a prog jazz epic - at its core it is an up tempo blues but with jagged prog' interludes, changing time signatures, and big solos. There is one particularly tricky gear change (a fast 4/4 modulating to 6/8 for the musos) that was inspired by part of a great old It Bites song ('Screaming On The Beaches' actually). There are other strong musical influences eg of King Crimson and John Coltrane. The whole band plays wonderfully on the recording which was made live in the studio – David Gordon on piano, Rob Statham on bass, and special mention to the special guest John Etheridge on guitar who plays a burning solo. Marc Parnell on drums plays spectacularly throughout. This track and the whole 'Secret Island ' album were recorded in summer 1996 at the now defunct Protocol studios off the Holloway Road, North London, I was very fortunate to have been able to book the wonderful sound engineer Phill Brown to record and mix the album. He had been recommended to me by bassist friend Mario Castronari. I think Phill was in the middle of recording Mark Hollis' classic solo album at the time and he is one of the great sound engineers – having recorded such classic albums as 'Spirit of Eden' and 'Laughing Stock' by Talk Talk, 'Houses of the Holy' by Led Zeppelin and Island records artists like John Martyn and Steve Winwood as well as 'No Woman No Cry' by Bob Marley. All artists and records I love. It was a privilege and a joy to work with Phill on the album and I think he got an amazing sound on it It was wonderful to hear his stories too!

I went to huge lengths for the cover of the album, travelling all over the south coast of England to find a suitable beach location. I was really looking for somewhere as atmospheric and bleak as the beaches in the wonderful 'Quadrophenia' album booklet with its grainy black and white photography by the legendary Ethan A. Russell. I ended up near Seaford in Sussex which had some amazing coastal cliffs and hidden beaches. The album photography was by Brighton based photographer Mark Nelson of (First Light photography) and it was our first collaboration – the first of many as Mark has now shot the covers of no less than fourteen of my albums including my very latest release 'Open Air'.

The track 'The Crow Road' works really well live particularly as a 'set ender' and has been a mainstay of my jazz quartet's live set touring the British jazz clubs for many years. More recently we have played it live with my Double Talk band on some gigs too. I think it still holds up. Hope you like…

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Review : Theo Travis: Open Air

​By John Kelman, All About Jazz (Source Review)

It's been a very busy decade for Theo Travis. The British reed/woodwind multi-instrumentalist has appeared, to varying degrees, on literally every album that Steven Wilson has released since turning to a solo career in 2009—from Insurgentes and 2011's Grace for Drowning (Kscope), through 2013's best-selling The Raven That Refused to Sing (And Other Stories), 2015's commercial breakthrough Hand. Cannot. Erase. and 2016's interim EP, 4 1/2 (all on Kscope)—while touring the world for three years with the rising progressive rock star, documented in his self-released book, Twice Around the World: Steven Wilson Tour Blogs 2012-2013 and including appearances in Montreal, Canada in 2011 and 2013.

During that time, he's also managed to tour and release a series of soundscape recordings with King Crimson's Robert Fripp, from 2008's Thread through 2014's Discretion (all on Panegyric); tour with David Gilmour in support of the Pink Floyd guitarist's Rattle That Lock (Columbia, 2015); and continue to record/tour with Soft Machine Legacy, the largely alumni-based collective of ex-Soft Machine members (Travis being one of the few, in the new millennium group's decade-plus existence, who did not play in its original run from 1966 through 1981); and both tour and record with British progressive rock group, The Tangent.

Beyond guest appearances on albums by artists including No-Man, a reformed Jade Warrior, ex-Japan drummer Steve Jansen, Gong and David Sylvian, it's hard to believe that, during that very same period—and, In addition to 2011's All I Know, an impressive and, especially for those new to Travis' music, informative two-CD anthology covering sixteen years of jazz-centric solo releases (most on the 33 Jazz imprint) from 1993's 2am through 2004's Earth to Ether, 2007's Double Talk and 2009's very limited live release, Ascending, Live at the Pizza—Travis also continued to gig occasionally with his Double Talk group, releasing its first studio album in eight years with 2015's Transgression (Esoteric Antenna).

On many of these recordings and live performances, Travis has used a sophisticated array of looping and other sonic devices to create what he calls "Ambitronics"; a process by which he can create multilayered, often spontaneously composed, music. But it's his duo work with Fripp and his ongoing collaboration with fellow Gong alum/bassist Dave Sturt as Cipher, which has currently released three albums, including 2006's Elemental Forces (Burning Shed)—in addition to writing scores for eight silent films from the 1920s that were performed live in a series of independent movie theaters across the U.K.—and, most notably, his solo flute outing, Slow Life (Ether Sounds, 2003), that first set the precedent for Open Air, another ambient-based, loop-driven solo flute recording that, limited to vinyl and downloadable formats, demonstrates continued growth for Travis while being possessed, at the same time, of some significant differences.

First, while still largely based upon spontaneously composed original music, Open Air also includes two pieces from outside sources: "Magnify," a drone-driven piece based on a traditional tune but here transformed almost beyond recognition into a lush, tranquil landscape; and "Whistman's Wood," the opening track from fellow reed multi-instrumentalist John Surman's Saltash Bells (ECM, 2012) that here, performed on flutes rather than saxophones and clarinets (and without the relentless rhythm of Surman's sequenced synthesizer), assumes a far calmer complexion, even as Travis builds his piece around Surman's core changes, layering loop-upon-loop of concert flute, alto flute and bass flute to create an ever-shifting series of changes that combine lithely improvised lines and clouds of sound that gradually ascend beyond perception, leaving Travis' lone flute to conclude the piece with gentle flurries, before ending with a single sustained note.

Unlike Slow Life's Travis-alone performances, Open Air also features a guest appearance by Academy of St, Martin in the Fields cellist Judith Herbert, who contributes deep, dark, wooden lines to Travis' bass flute drone-driven album-opener, "Menacing Eyes," with its hints of Middle Eastern tonalities and overall melancholic disposition.

Third, whilst Slow Life was an exploration of what could be done with nothing more than an alto flute and Ambitronics, Open Air expands Travis' sonic palette through its use of a variety of flutes: in addition to concert, alto and bass flutes, Travis introduces wooden flute and, in particular, Native American flute on "Snow Owl Earth," where its specific tonality dominates over a gentle chordal cushion of other layered flutes.

Travis describes Open Air as "beatless, ambient flute music," and there's no denying that this largely tranquil 50-minute program can easily serve as a much-needed balm for today's troubled times. But it's much more than that. The term "ambient" often suggests (in no way derogatorily) unobtrusive sonic backdrops: music that does not command the mind but, instead, is more felt than heard; music evocative of imagery and atmosphere rather than melodic, harmonic and rhythmic movement.

Indeed, there are aspects of Open Air that meet such descriptors...but equally, it's hard not to appreciate the lovely melodies and haunting changes that define the spacious "Preacher and Flock"; the arpeggio-driven "Sailing and Drifting," which suggests a calmer, less unrelenting Philip Glass; or the closing, riff-driven, finger-snapping "Head for Home," a surprisingly propulsive piece that could easily morph into a progressive rock instrumental with the addition of an electrified rhythm section.

Throughout, Travis continues to prove himself a masterful player and spirited conceptualist. It may well be an album of "beatless, ambient flute music," but that's too reductionist a description of Open Air. As definitive as its calming quietude can be, this is a remarkably diverse and unpredictable album, especially considering its relatively diminutive instrumentation.

Not unlike Norwegian reed/woodwind player Hakon Kornstad—whose series of improvised solo reed and woodwind recordings on Jazzland (also, utilizing extensive looping), including 2010's Dwell Time and 2011's Symphonies Inside My Head are similarly impressive but born of a very different mind—Travis continues to demonstrate just how disparate a similar foundational concept can become in the hands of musicians from different cultures and differing musical touchstones.

Possessed of a reach that has, over the past quarter century, found him traversing a remarkably broad expanse of the musical continuum, Travis continues to transform a concept similarly adopted by other musicians into something deeply personal and instantly recognizable. Call it jazz, call it prog, call it ambient. Call it anything you wish, but perhaps the best and most accurate description of Open Air is this? A musically deep and diverse yet emotionally soothing and eminently appealing record that positions Travis as a musician of great reach, infinite potential...and deserving of increased attention, as he continues to find himself the musician of choice for a great many others, even as he continues to build his own impressive discography. ​

Track Listing: Side A: Menacing Eyes; October Night; Whistman's Wood; Snow Owl Earth; Glint of Light. Side B: Magnify; Preacher and Flock; Blackhouse; Sailing and Drifting; Head for Home.

Personnel: Theo Travis – flute, alto flute, bass flute, wood flute, Native American flute; Judith Herbert: cello (Side A#1). Title: Open Air | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Tonefloat

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