When is a box set not a box set? When it’s a ten part anthology, to be drip fed into our psyches over a period of presumably months, and each fresh dose delivering another CD’s worth of largely unreleased, and (presumably) essentially essential, music from one of the key bassists of the rock’n’roll era.
Except to describe the late Hugh Hopper as a bassist is a bit like calling Jimi Hendrix a glorified banjo player, or saying Keith Moon was good at hitting things. Some musicians so transcend all the baggage that their actual instrument was born with that their unadorned name is all you need to hear. And Hopper’s name guarantees genius.
Even when spread over the 10-CD set of unreleased recordings scheduled for release by Gonzo Multimedia; compiled by Hopper expert Michael King; and drawn from across his career. The earliest recordings capture the Soft Machine, whom he joined in 1969, replacing Kevin Ayers; the latest taken from his last ever musical performance.
And in between times... the full list appears at the foot of this page. For now, discs one and two have already arrived, and if they are any indication whatsoever of all that is to come, then the next year-or-however-long is going to be the most exciting tht the Canterbury collecting crowd has enjoyed in a long time.
Disc one, Memories, is the simplest of them all, a seven track collection that rounds up rarities that stretch back to a summer 1969 Softs demo of the title track, and forward to 2004, and the Hugh Hopper Franglo Band... stopping off in between times with North and South, percussionist Nigel Morris, pianist Alan Gowen and a computer collage that it would be positively wicked to detail for you here. Just listen to it. “Hugh Hopper + Many Friends = Many Surprises,” it says in the liners and that is so true.
So many different moods add up to a remarkable mixed bag. North and South’s “Shuffle Demons,” from 1995, is a tempestuous sax-led romp; the Anglo-French Franglo Band’s 2004 version of “Was A Friend” is smooth, undulating, almost Trip Hoppy in texture, and sets you up mightily for the same act’s “Debonaire.”
Hopper’s computer work will startle anyone who thinks they know what to expect to happen when a bassist sits down at a laptop, and even the somewhat indulgent sounding prospect of Hopper’s fuzz bass duetting with Nigel Morris’s percussion, on a cut recorded with the two musicians an ocean and continent apart, is a glorious ride. Hopper’s own spoken introductions to the songs adds to the intimacy of the set, and so the spirit of the future is established.
“Shuffle Demon” reappears, albeit in considerably less excitable form, on disc two, a straightforward rendering of a Paris concert on March 13, 2004, aptly subtitled “Concert Performances of Classic Compositions.” Again it’s the Franglo band at work... Patrice Meyer, Pierre-Olivier Govin, Francois Verly and Hopper, plus Gong veteran Didier Malherbe on sundry tootly things on the closing “Miniluv”... and the repertoire effortlessly lives up to the billing. “Facelift” from the Softs, Isotope’s “Sliding Dogs” and solo album favorites “Miniluv” and “Lonely Sky and the Sea” are all offered glorious work-outs, while the take on Coltrane’s “Mr Syms” is positively delirious.
Across this pair and all future releases, other reviews and reviewers will doubtless tie themselves into glorious knots discussing Hopper’s changing bass styles and approach to playing; the varying mindsets required to create his music; the musical brilliance that raised his vision into the rarified strata that we hear here. All of which is important stuff. The most crucial point, however, is ... well, yes it’s all very clever and arty and all that stuff.
But it’s also eminently listenable and utterly enjoyable, and that’s an aspect of Hopper’s music (and many of his old Canterbury cohorts too) that often gets overlooked. And, in so being, it maybe puts people off from exploring further. The fact that you don’t have to give a hoot for jazz rock, for improvisation, for fusion or any such nonsense as that. At the end of the day, it’s just great to play.
And we have eight more volumes still to come!
Volume 3 - North & South
co-credited with Scottish drummer Mike Travis (Gilgamesh)
Live in Aberdeen 1995
Volume 4 - Four by Hugh by Four
One-off quartet live at Bimhuis, Amsterdam, 2000
Volume 5 - Heart to Heart
Co-credited with guitarist Phil Miller (Hatfield/National Health/In Cahoots)
Studio duet performance, Amsterdam, 2007
Volume 6 - Special Friends
Rare concert recordings, 1992 through 1995, of Hugh's project with Phil Miller, Didier Malherbe (Gong), Pip Pyle & Elton Dean - a.k.a. Short Wave.
Volume 7 - Soft Boundaries
Triton, Paris concert recordings with Elton Dean, Sophia Domanich & Simon Goubet 2005
Volume 8 - Bass On Top
Improvised studio session with pianist Slava Ganelin & drummer Aahron Kaminsky, Israel 2007
Volume 9 - Anatomy of Facelift
Five live performances of Hugh's signature composition, Facelift, as performed by Soft Machine, 1969 through 1971. Includes extracts from Lois Frith's University Thesis: Anatomy of Facelift
Volume 10 - Was A Friend
Various rare tracks, including duets with drummers Chris Cutler (Henry Cow) & Seb Rockford and concluding with Hugh final musical performance: Was A Friend, performed by Denis Colin Trio, 2008