Soft Heap

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Reviews of Soft Heap


22/07/2008 Nic Jones ~ All About Jazz

With the exception of drummer Pip Pyle this is the group that recorded 'Rogue Element' (Ogun) in May of 1978. On that occasion the drummer was Dave Sheen and the group was known as Soft Head, which offers a clue as to how the name was arrived at, particularly in view of the presence of Soft Machine alumni Elton Dean and Hugh Hopper. Keyboard player Alan Gowen, a musician as undervalued as the British Steve Miller, rounded the quartet out and his compositions as much as anyone's helped to give the music an identity all its own.

Captured for posterity in November of the same year, the music on this live set rolls and boils in a way it didn't with Sheen behind the drums. What emerges overall is a common group dynamic with seemingly multiple facets. On Gowen's "Remain So" this is all too obvious in the form of Pyle's rolling thunder, hinting as it does at rhythmic possibilities which, whilst they weren't explored on this particular night, might well have been the night before or after.

The reflective nature and harmonic individuality of Gowen's compositions is highlighted by "Sleeping House" until Dean takes flight in particularly incendiary fashion, pushing at the line without being assertive to the detriment of the music. The work and interaction of Gowen and Hugh Hopper is notable on this one, with both men taking what might be called a negligible line by comparison with the interplay between Dean and Pyle. The collective end result is so much more than the work of a band that merely came to play and the listener's ear accordingly gets a good workout.

Whoever the dedicatee of Dean's "One For Lee" is one can only hope they're a worthy recipient. Pyle here is the epitome of the shuffle boil that Thelonious Monk might have had in mind when he gave his piece that title, and the cyclical figure that Hopper plays has the effect of grounding the music while Dean takes flight again on his saxello. When Pyle comes back to that figure and Gowen sketches out the harmonies it serves notice of how form can be infinitely malleable in the right hands. It's also the kind of blast that seems to make every day cares melt away.


26/06/2008 Beppe Colli ~ Clouds and Clocks

Al Dente features a live concert recorded in London, at the Phoenix Club, on November, 22, 1978. Six tracks are featured in all, for a total of 73'. Thinking about this line-up is quite stimulating. Alan Gowen is an electric pianist that's quite different from Mike Ratledge, who was pretty sparse when comping on the electric piano. In so differently from Ratledge, behind Gowen one can hear a long study of orthodox jazz "comping", chord substitution, and working melodically in parallel to the soloist. Here, Pip Pyle is almost a "stronger and more muscular" version of Phil Howard - one can't help but wonder what fate would have been reserved for Soft Machine had the group chosen somebody sounding more like this Pyle than John Marshall.

Fara is the nice bluesy ballad - a "sensitive theme", played mid-tempo, almost à la Sonny Rollins - that we know already, with alto sax by the composer, elegant cymbals, nice backing by bass and piano; the latter instrument - after stating the structure - walks in parallel to the saxophone. Nice Gowen solo at about 7', with a nice counterpoint by Pyle.

Sleeping House is, I believe, an unreleased track by Gowen. A medium-fast tempo, a very agile Hopper on bass, then a saxello solo sounding quite "bitter". At about 7' there's a nice unison passage of saxello and bass, then a piano solo with the rhythm section sounding almost like a Hopper/Howard. At about 11' there's a nice bass/drums unison, a change of tempo, and nice accents from bass/bass drum. After about a quarter of an hour, the ending sounds not a little like Soft Machine.

C.R.R.C. is slow and cyclical, lyric, with Pip Pyle's toms sounding quite "black". Nice piano solo at about 10', with ostinato and crescendo from bass/drum. At about 12', what sounds like tape editing brings the listener to...

Circle Line: a classic knotty-sounding theme by Hopper for a track where the bass plays many unison parts with the sax and the piano. There's a piano solo, followed by an excellent bass/drums part, highlighting in turn cymbal, bass drum, crash, and rimshot. Theme played on sax/bass, the close coming at about 6'.

Slow and lyric, Remain So by Gowen almost sounds like a standard. An orthodox-sounding sax solo, classic comping, solo piano at about 9'30, theme, and close at 17'.

The last track features the well-known melody by Elton Dean here going under the title One For Lee. Excellent solos from piano and sax, and a really great performance from Pyle.


25/08/0008 Duncan Heining, Jazzwise, U.K.

"All self-respecting "Canterbury" fans are going to want this, featuring as it does Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean from the Softs, Alan Gowen from Gilgamesh and Pip Pyle from just about everything. And they - and possibly you - are in for a very pleasant surprise, as Al Dente is even better than we might have hoped.
No noodling, just direct and straight-to-the-heart, honest-to-goodness, space-age solos over washes of keyboards, bass and percussion. But dive in to the maelstrom and hear Hopper's bass playing against Pyle's bass drum and bubbling under Gowen's then state-of-the-art keyboards."


24/08/0008 Clifford Allen, All About Jazz

"Soft Heap was a brief post-Softs project featuring Dean and Softs bassist Hugh Hopper alongside drummer Pip Pyle (Gong, Hatfield and the North, National Health, Delivery) and keyboardist Alan Gowen. Apart from a single and somewhat scarce LP on Charly, this 1978 concert recording is the only documentation of the quartet's work (though some song titles are misidentified). Far from the anthemic minimalism and fuzzed-out squall of the Softs' suites, Soft Heap explores form with a looser, almost journeyman approach.
Dean's “Fara” is shockingly simple as a slightly saccharine ballad, yet the altoist's phrasing finds an oddly metallic affinity with Johnny Hodges. The rhythm section picks up the pace as Dean digs in and builds into cadenzas and shouts in some of his most thrilling choruses on record. Gowen's bluesy turns and frantic runs imply a tonal sensibility more acoustic than electric, far beyond the phased pulse of his instrument. The pianist's “Sleeping House” is significantly more jagged, Pyle hacking and bashing away behind Gowen's punchy left hand and Dean's shenai-like intonation. The drummer's constantly inverted lope is both whirlwind release and unrelenting tension, rhythmic complexity that was key in the open-ended “rock” bands he drove. Pyle constructs a web of tom work behind wispy piano and saxello phasing on “Circle Line,” a continual heaping of rhythm and motion atop lyricism, driving the group towards ferocious knots and relentless motoring at its most Softs-like.
Ultimately, Soft Heap tow a line closer to jazz than the Soft Machine ever did, and could only be called fusion by the fact that they plugged in their instruments. Gowen's soloing belies an acoustic approach within the clothing of gadgetry. Hopper's unaccompanied sonic explorations couldn't happen without plugging in, even as his outlines behind soloists both drone and sketch swing. This is liberated, lyrical jazz that uses its chords to advantage."


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