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Hugh Hopper

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Biography of Hugh Hopper

When it comes to a long and diverse career ranging from psychedelic space and progressive rock to free jazz and everything in between, there’s only one bassist who’s done it all: Hugh Hopper. Hopper may not be a virtuoso by conventional definition, but his strong voice, potent grooves and innovative textures have made him an essential and unmistakable component of every project with which he’s been associated.

Hopper was there at the beginning of the British Canterbury scene. A charter member of the under-recorded but vastly influential Wilde Flowers, Hopper joined the legendary Soft Machine in late 1968, and can be heard on many of the group’s classic jazz/rock albums including Third (1970) and Fourth (1971). It was there that Hopper met Elton Dean. Despite the saxophonist/pianist’s free jazz leanings and Hopper’s more compositional approach, the two found much common ground, and their paths would continue to intersect on a regular basis up until Dean’s unexpected passing in 2006.

When Hopper left Soft Machine following the release of Six (1973) he had already been experimenting with tape looping for many years; a concept explored to great effect on his first solo album, the classic 1984 (1974). The more band-oriented Hopper Tunity Box followed in 1977, along with collaborations that included the late Gilgamesh keyboardist Alan Gowen, jazz composer/bandleader Carla Bley, Soft Head and Soft Heap - the first of what would become a series of Softs-related projects defined by the participation of Hopper and Dean.

After a couple of years off in the early ‘80s, Hopper “began to get the music virus again,” joining up with ex-Hatfield and the North guitarist Phil Miller’s group In Cahoots, which also featured Dean. Hopper and Dean were also charter members of Equipe Out, another post-Hatfield band led by drummer Pip Pyle (who also passed away in 2006). But it was a Dutch Soft Machine fan, who told the bassist that if he ever wanted to play in Holland there’d be plenty of people ready to work with him, that resulted in a revived career as a bandleader. Hopper’s jazz/fusion Anglo-Dutch band (later, with the addition of French guitarist Patrice Meyer, Franglo-Dutch band) would work through to the mid-1990s, releasing albums including Meccano Pelorus (1991) and Carousel (1994).

Any working musician will tell you that it’s virtually impossible to put all your eggs in one basket. So while Hopper pursued his own brand of fusion with the Franglo-Dutch band, he was also doing free improvisation with Dean, pianist Keith Tippett and drummer Joe Gallivan; epic mixes of composed and improvised works with ex-Henry Cow woodwind multi-instrumentalist Lindsay Cooper on Oh Moscow (1991); psychedelic improvisations with space rock/jam band progenitor Gong and its various offshoots; and Brainville - a collaboration with Pip Pyle and Soft Machine co-founder Daevid Allen, who called it “the most eccentric three-piece jazz rock outfit of the Canterbury school.”

More recently Hopper continued to expand his innovative looping concept in collaboration with American artist Matt Howarth for the multimedia The Stolen Hour (2004); record two albums of curiously skewed pop songs with singer Lisa S. Klossner; and joined forces with avant rockers Caveman Shoestore to create Caveman Hughscore (ultimately reduced to Hughscore).

Through it all, Hopper has continued to work with Dean on Softs-related projects including the free jazz-centric Soft Bounds, the equally free but more expansive Anglo-Japan group Soft Mountain, and a collaboration with the French Collectif Polysons for 2004’s Polysoft: Tribute to Soft Machine.

Soft Works was formed in 2003 with Soft Machine alumni John Marshall (drums) and Allan Holdsworth (guitar), releasing one album (2003’s Abracadabra). When Holdsworth became unavailable former Softs guitarist John Etheridge was brought in and Soft Machine Legacy was born.

As with all Softs projects, Soft Machine Legacy honors the adventurous spirit rather than the literal letter of Soft Machine, but this time with a much harder rock stance. With Dean the group released two albums for MoonJune - 2005’s Live in Zandaam and an eponymous 2006 studio album. Dean’s death in February 2006 temporarily threw the group into disarray, but with the recruitment of woodwind multi-instrumentalist Theo Travis - an established artist with deep roots in both Canterbury and jazz traditions - the group has moved towards an even more aggressive and open-ended approach that will not only appeal to the progressive rock crowd, but jamband fans as well. A new album has already been recorded with the new line-up, and will be released by MoonJune later this year.

These days Hopper is also occupied with a new group, Numero D’Vol, whose first album will be released by MoonJune in March, 2007. A quartet featuring saxophonist Simon Picard (also a current member of Phil Miller’s In Cahoots), keyboardist Steve Franklin and drummer Charles Heyward, Numero D’Vol has its own take on free improvisation that incorporates reckless abandon with ambient textures, visceral grooves and staggering collective interplay.

Now in his early 60s, Hopper is busier than ever, his significance increasingly appreciated by new generations of musicians and fans. With Numero D’Vol and Soft Machine Legacy ramped up for greater exposure by MoonJune, 2007 promises to be a busy year for an artist who continues to evolve on the widest possible variety of musical fronts.

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