Earthworks Digs Deep
Scullers, Boston MA
May 29, 2001
There are many I’m sure that have come to feel that jazz is more “museum music” than anything else. Many, I’m sure wondering is it possible to do anything new or genuinely exciting in the jazz idiom, given its unfortunate tendency to constantly dwell in its past to the exclusion of true innovation, the principle on which jazz was founded to start with. But take heart, Ken Burns and Wynton Marsalis have not had the last word on that one, not as long as Earthworks is around.
Even the unusual arrangement of Bruford’s drum kit gave hints that this was not going to be a typical jazz show. Promptly at 8pm, Bruford and his distinguished cohorts unassumingly took the stage, and proceeded to throw any hints of cliché’ or tedium out the window (you could practically hear those things screaming as they plunged into the Charles River below) and gave jazz a much needed kick in the rear. While Earthworks has its noticeable reference points (like the classic early to mid 60’s John Coltrane quartets), it takes those things into another world altogether. Prone to wonderful bouts or poignant balladry, twisty middle-Eastern flavored melody lines, smoky crime-jazz flavorings, joyous outbursts and many unexpected, yet flowing changes of meter and tempo, Earthworks does not allow for boredom or predictability.
The foursome charged into a fierce reading of “Revel Without A Pause” (from their newest disc The Sound of Surprise, a very fitting title), featuring the leader’s furious yet controlled Elvin Jones-like polyrhythmic firestorms, short and meaningful solo exchanges between Clahar and Hamilton. Particularly engaging, was a piano solo form Hamilton that conjured up whole worlds of colors, rippling Ravel-like flourishes happily collided with gruff McCoy Tyner flavored block chords. After the song’s end, Bruford quipped that this was the first night of their US tour, and that they would be “lurching aimlessly across the US, with unmercifully, not a night off”. In reality, this was a band that played with amazing confidence in its’ direction, yet left itself wide open to the numerous risk that truly great jazz involves. This would be further shown with the roller coaster ride that was “Never The Same Way Once” featuring a dizzying variety of tempos and dynamic contrasts, a wonderfully melodic bass solo from Hodgson (making great use of the low and mid registers) a great Coltrane-inflected tenor solo from Clahar, and a wonderful surprise ending. “Shadow of a Doubt” was a great opportunity to show off the band’s ballad capabilities, with lots of great dramatic contrasts and Clahar pulling out sinewy melodies from his soprano sax. Patrick Clahar must be commended on not only soloing as if he was having a conversation with someone, but also having a thick full sound from a horn that has sadly been abused by far lesser talents and stereotyped as having a thin screechy sound. Clahar would have none of that! Next was the joyous “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, a song that seemed to dare the musicians to stay cohesive, with it’s tricky rhythmic displacements and unrelenting energy, as one joyous outburst followed another. Patrick Clahar really stole the show with “The Wooden Man Sings and the Stone Woman Dances”, a compositional tour de force in 3 distinct sections, linked together by one of those quirky angular Middle Eastern flavored melody lines. This also featured a slow swinging piano solo in the middle, lots of time changes and a very explosive ending! One could also hear faint references to Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” in various melodic passages. “Come To Dust” allowed pianist Hamilton to spin off a wonderfully Ravel-esque solo introduction to this melancholy ballad, Clahar unwound mournful choruses on his soprano and bassist Hodgson played a gruff, world-weary bass solo that strongly conveyed the song’s mood. Earthworks finished off with another tour de force piece that in Bruford’s words, “goes back to the band’s early origins in the year 1936” (actually, it dates back to the first Earthworks album from 1987) called “Bridge of Inhibition”, a long-time audience favorite. The four musicians hit the deadly twisted Middle Eastern flavored unison passages without so much as batting an eyelid, charging through to a beautiful piano solo section and a thoughtful rolling solo from Bruford (who cites Max Roach and Jack DeJohnette as Bill Bruford has certainly acquitted himself well in the jazz idiom that he has always loved (but never had the full opportunity to explore previously), showing great care and forethought in his drumming; yet having incredible spontaneity at the forefront. His drumming is far more free spirited and somewhat less angular than his work with prog-rock stalwarts like Yes or King Crimson, where he cemented his reputation. Earthworks as a whole band is a real breath of fresh air and a unique perspective that jazz desperately needs. Bruford’s choice of fellow musicians is nothing less than inspired, and he is to be commended for giving them lots of room to grow and develop, and a unique and uncliched environment in which to express themselves. Mssrs. Clahar, Hodgson and Hamilton all are developing strong voices of their own already. I look forward to even more exciting developments and sounds of surprise from them.
Bill Bruford: Drums, Patrick Clahar: Tenor & Soprano Sax, Steve Hamilton: Piano and Mark Hodgson: Bass.