Bill Bruford: No Random Act
“ Broadly it should be British, it should be exciting, it should be riveting as heck and everybody who leaves a show should say, "Well, I didn't know I liked jazz," or, "If that's jazz I like it." ”
"In the late '60s the BBC broadcast a great show, every Saturday night, of incoming American jazz artists, says Bruford, "and I saw all these great guys as a young teenager. But there were really three drummers who shaped my development. The Dave Brubeck Quartet was hugely popular here and the drummer, Joe Morello, was astonishing with that whole business of odd meters; I loved all that and fell right into it. Then, of course, there was Max Roach, who had this lovely elegant style; it seemed to be very mellifluous, with that whole idea of getting tunes from the drums. And finally there was Art Blakey for the sound , the way a drum kit could be made to sound so personal, that you could have your own authority on it. You didn't sound like Buddy Rich and when Buddy Rich played it didn't sound like Art Blakey.
Early Days as a Leader
Parallel to his work with progressive rock groups, Bruford began to forge his own career as a leader, with an emphasis on structured composition that still left room for group interplay. His first recordings, starting with '77's Feels Good to Me and ending with '80's Gradually Going Tornado , comfortably combined an idiosyncratic writing style with elements of progressive rock, jazz and fusion. "My first main inspiration as a writer was really sheer terror and humiliation, explains Bruford. "For two or three years I struggled with tuned percussion and then gave it up because it was simply too much work; but on the first album or two I did very much enjoy marimba and vibraphone. But as a writer, coming from art rock where the writing was very dramatic, I wanted to bring some of that drama to jazz. It wasn't ever going to be just swing choruses followed by an interminable line of soloists going over the same chord sequence.
The under-exposed and under-rated British keyboardist Dave Stewart, whom Bruford first met in a band called National Health a few years earlier, was a member of Bruford's first band, and there was a clear link between the two, in terms of writing style. "I'd seen Dave's writing and played some of it in National Health, Bruford says, "and that was kind of interesting. I don't think I was as knowledgeable or equipped as him, but I felt my way around it slowly, and he was of great assistance. I'm not a trained musician, so it took me a while to come up with stuff, study a bit and find out how to get from A to C which was usually through B, but I would send it through D instead. I've often had a good keyboard player overlooking my shoulder saying, 'I wouldn't do that if I was you,' or, 'It could be better by doing this.'
Earthworks Mark I and II
In '83, while still a member of King Crimson, Bruford recorded an album of duets with pianist Patrick Moraz, Music for Piano and Drums , that demonstrated a desire to reconcile his mathematical precision with a looser approach. While this would be a lengthy evolutionary process, the next step in that evolution was the formation of his band Earthworks, in '86. With the considerable talents of multi-instrumentalist Django Bates and saxophonist Iain Ballamy, Bruford began to gravitate towards compositions that, while still structured, were even more about interplay and freedom. While the band still revolved heavily around electronics with Bruford playing chordal drums, an electronic set-up of pads where he could trigger chord changes, there was no question that this was a jazz band, albeit one with a difference. "One of the great things about jazz is the ambiguity of it, says Bruford. "Is it this, or is it that; or maybe is it this and that at the same time? Is it simple, is it complex? Oh! It's simple and complex at the same time.
The Earthworks band with Bates and Ballamy, often referred to as Earthworks Mark I, lasted until the early '90s, when Bruford was once again enlisted in a new formation of King Crimson. The dissolution of the Crimson Double Trio in '96 gave Bruford the push to finally devote himself full-time to his own music, but with a changed concept. Eschewing all forms of electronics, and moving towards an even looser improvisational format, Bruford released '97's If Summer Had Its Ghosts , a beautiful trio outing with guitarist/pianist Ralph Towner and bassist Eddy Gomez. The experience was good enough to motivate Bruford to form a new version of Earthworks, this time an all-acoustic affair with pianist Steve Hamilton, saxophonist Patrick Clahar and bassist Mark Hodgson. '99's A Part, and Yet Apart was an impressive calling card for a group that has since become Bruford's main project and primary musical emphasis. Releasing two more records with that line-up, '01's The Sound of Surprise and '02's live release, Footloose and Fancy Free , further consolidated the direction and thrust of Earthworks Mark II.
An Unconventional Drum Kit
Immediately apparent on the '02 live DVD release, Footloose in NYC , is Bruford's unconventional drum kit. "I've always been interested in drum configurations, says Bruford, "and ways you can set them up. Rather than bringing the traditional American style drum kit to a gig and saying, 'this is what I've brought,' and letting that determine the music, I try to listen to the music first and say, 'you will need this and you will need that.' So you hear the music in your ears first, and let the music dictate what instruments you have and how you set them up; that's generally true, through much of the stuff I've been doing with Crimson, Yes and all those types of things.
"The new set is based on the very easy and natural way that timpanists go by, continues Bruford. "Five drums sort of flat, waist-high, and set up symmetrically with two cymbals and two toms on the left, two cymbals and two toms on the right. Swivelling slightly from the hips, from left to right, is an easier motion for me than reaching forward to the top toms. So once you've got them flat you've got to get rid of the high hat; that means you've got to get a remote high hat right in front, along with the snare, which is possible. That kind of symmetry opens up a huge range of possibilities for quite a small drum set. Like all things to do with music, money comes into play, which means if you're hopping around Europe like I am you can't take a ton of stuff. So that particular drum settwo cymbals and two toms on each side, a snare and high hat in the middlehas a lot of bang for the buck.
"And it alters your approach, concludes Bruford. "The classic number one cliché is 'diga-diga-diga-diga-diga-diga-diga-diga-bush' as you go around the toms and end with a cymbal crash. With my set-up the pitches are out of order, so that's actually very hard to play. So the pitches are going to come out in somewhat odder orders; you can hear that a bit on my solo, 'With Friends Like These.'
Enter Tim Garland
In '02 Clahar left the band, and was replaced with woodwind multi-instrumentalist and composer Tim Garland, also a bandleader in his own right. "Well, we keep going up a notch, says Bruford. "Tim's a British guy with a standing in American credentials; he comes from Chick Corea's group, Origin, so he's got a combination that I like a lot. First we speak the same language, and I don't mean that facetiously; I mean we share the same view of life. But he also has the international view down as well, he's played all the big festivals, he's seen how it was with Chick. So we're up a notch with Tim. He also brings a number of other instruments; he's a multi-instrumentalist who plays flute, bass clarinet, soprano and tenor saxophones; he can play piano if you want him to. He brings all that, but he's in the band particularly for his compositions.
Three of Garland's compositions"White Knuckle Wedding, "Tramontana and "Speaking With Wooden Tongues are featured on the most recent Earthworks recording, Random Acts of Happiness. Unquestionably Bruford's loosest playing to date, there is still the strong sense of composition that characterizes his work, even in his drum solos. "I'm very concerned with that; I've always, in a way, thought of my drumming as being little compositions in their own right, Bruford explains. "In the sense that if the electricity were switched off and the entire group went silent, the drum part alone would be worth listening to; it would have its own life; its own reason for existence. I love composition because I do see the drums very much as moving from section to section; this thing exists because of the thing that existed immediately prior and has a reason for being. I like that a lot.
But learning to be more relaxed with the music is something that Bruford continues to strive for. "The ambiguity of jazz is one of the great attractions, says Bruford. "I think I've always been steering towards that but am beginning to make headway only now, partly because the musicians I now play with have come so much from that world that it frees one up. In my earlier days with rock and, in particular, big rooms, you needed to speak with a real clarity; and if what you were trying to do was remotely complicated or off the wall then that had to be clearly off the wall as well or else it wouldn't translate. So I came to this with perhaps too much precision and I'm trying to loosen that now and imply things, which I think is a much better approach.
CompositionsOld and New
With Garland's compositional infusion into the band, Earthworks are delving even further into the realm of extended composition. "Yeah, that's terrific, I love that, explains Bruford. "That's partly a product of training, which is great. Learning to make eight bars go a long way; to reinvert it and play it backwards and upside down and much later halfway through and all the other things you can do to get further mileage out of your material. I always found that difficult, as an uneducated musician, but there are a number of tricks you can use. Tim is, on the whole, a better writer than I am and his tunes are lovely to play.
Another interesting direction with the new record is the reintroduction of older Bruford pieces, from Earthworks Mark I, and even as far back as from his '70s group, Bruford. "That was a request from Tim, Bruford explains. "He grew up with some of the Bruford/Holdsworth stuff and said, 'We've got to do some of that.' I said, 'Not really because the sound of it isn't going to work in this context,' but we did find two or three pieces that did sit well.
"Pat Mastelotto, from King Crimson, had a nice phrase, continues Bruford, "that musicians know where the bodies are buried. The music is so much a part of a musician that one can't look back at anything with any objectivity until at least ten years has passed. And it took an incoming Tim Garland to say, 'that lovely ballad with Annette Peacock, "Seems Like a Lifetime Ago, we could do that.' I went, 'My God , are you sure?' and he said 'Yeah, it'll sound great!' and sure enough it did. 'One of a Kind' was a bit of a reach, but we got away with it. And playing some older material is also nice for the crowd, because they are aware of my having a long career of which I am usually only doing the last ten minutes; they're grateful to hear something from a little further back.
Random Acts of Happiness , like the previous Footloose and Fancy Free , is a live recording, but rather than being a consolidation of existing material, this is an album of new compositions along with the new treatments of older pieces. Given that Earthworks does little to nothing in the way of editing, recording an album of new works live made perfect sense. "There's so little difference in live and studio recording these days, says Bruford. "The studio has, ever since this inception of Earthworks, been only the physical building in which the performance is made. We don't use it, in any sense, as another instrument as other musicians sometimes do. Obviously we are performance-based music; you do two or three takes and that's it, that's all. The drums are always untouched, and of course if there is a small slip or error then you can retouch it; but generally speaking what you play is what you get. So given that you're going to do that in two or three days in the studio, you might just as well add another date to the tour and record it live at the end of the tour. It also cuts costs somewhat; and anything you can do to cut costs is going to be a good thing on the whole, while maintaining the quality of course.
The new record sounds better than the last one, largely because it was recorded in what is fast becoming known as one of the best clubs for live recording in the United States, Yoshi's in Oakland, California. "Unfortunately Footloose and Fancy Free , which was OK, explains Bruford, "was recorded in a room with a very low ceiling, and it caused a bit of a problem, whereas Yoshi's is a much taller room; you get much more space in the microphones so you get a bigger sound; it's a much better sounding room overall.
Whether or not, like Keith Jarrett, Bruford will continue to record new albums exclusively in a live context is up in the air. "It's interesting, isn't it? says Bruford. "I hadn't thought of that, but it's absolutely interesting about Jarrett. But do I intend to do another one, I don't know really. But that's one of the great things about jazz, the only way it can compete is because of the speed and economy of the musicians in (a) sight reading, (b) rehearsing very quickly and (c) recording very quickly. So jazz can compete economically on those terms; it has those three big guns that it can bring to bear, unlike rock groups that have to sit rehearsing for days on end.
Enter Gwilym Simcock
The new album represents yet another turning point for Earthworks Mark II, as after its recording pianist Steve Hamilton departed, to be replaced by young Welsh pianist Gwilym Simcock, first heard with the group Acoustic Triangle. "Gwil is definitely the hot new kid in town, Bruford explains. "His ability is really astonishing, he's one of those guys who plays much more maturely than you would expect at the age of twenty-three. I haven't gotten around to his writing yet, but he's a prodigiously gifted musician, a real pleasure to play with. We've only just started, having played five or six dates, and I've had to raise my game considerably. This is always the pleasure in running a band; there aren't too many pleasures in running a band, let me tell you, but in return for all the effort what you get is to invite guys into the band that you like and who will force you to rethink and up your game, pay attention, and get back on the case.
"Gwilym is challenging, continues Bruford, "because he phrases so across the bar line that you'd better have a very secure sense of where you are in the music. You're not allowed to get lost, and you don't want to get lost; but if you start listening too much to Gwil then you are transported. Of course I do listen to him though, he's great!
The Earthworks Sound
With all the personnel changes in the band, and only bassist Mark Hodgson remaining from the original Mark II line-up, the question is what defines the Earthworks sound, what gives it a brand? "Well, it's nothing overt, explains Bruford. "I think it stems from the compositions; they are what they are. They come in a slightly different way and to the average American they are rather idiosyncratic, they have odd twists and turns; considerably odd twists and turns which you'd be unlikely to find in the American mainstream of jazz composition. But I don't have hard and fast, black and white rules; I think a lot of this band leading business is down to who you invite into the thing, and if you've got Tim and I it's going to drift in a certain kind of direction. Now, I would shout and scream if it moved too far from some internalized picture of how I think things should go. Broadly it should be British, it should be exciting, it should be riveting as heck and everybody who leaves a show should say, 'Well, I didn't know I liked jazz,' or, 'If that's jazz I like it,' which is what they seem to say.
Further testing the definition of an Earthworks sound, Bruford and Garland traveled to the United States in '03 for a brief tour that, rather than including Hodgson and Hamilton, picked up two American musicians. Born out of issues including economic necessity and the current political climate, the result was hugely successful, featuring two New York players, pianist Henry Hey and bassist Mike Pope. "Like so many things in music, explains Bruford, "you're going to hear this word economy coming back into the conversation periodically. I grew up in a different world where we just assumed you'd fly drum sets around the world and you'd take your own group of musicians with you from Britain. As time passed we became more economical with flying drum kits about and now we're becoming a bit more economical with flying musicians about. It may not be necessary for me to fly a bassist all the way to the States or Spain or anywhere necessarily. And sometimes people like me have two or three different teams if possible. There's an argument that says you should have an American band, a Japanese band, a European band and an English band.
"It was an experiment in a way, continues Bruford, "to pick up two guys in New Yorka great city, by the way, in which to pick up two musicians because they are so good and the standard is so high. Both Henry and Mike were just fantastic readers. As long as you prepare people enough then it's OK. They had good audio and good charts, but nevertheless to absorb the music, internalize it and then play off of it so quickly in just two or three dates is very quick indeed.
"And it was very fast, Bruford continues. "Like so many things these days there was a three hour rehearsal the day before and that was it. It's a great standard; all I can say is the young guys are getting to be like tennis playersthey're getting better and better and quicker and quicker. Like Henry, we only had a short rehearsal with Gwilym, but it's the same thing; it's internalized very quickly. The only questions will be, 'Should we have this section twice as long as that one?' or, 'Should we have this section half as long?'; and one or two kind of logistical map reading kinds of questions. But the music will come together very, very quickly, and it's absolutely astonishing to me; well not exactly astonishing, but I'm thrilled; it says a huge amount about the future of jazz if it's in the hands of these young guys.
Changes in American policy are also making alternate plans a necessity. "It's getting harder by the minute, explains Bruford, " and it's getting more expensive by the minute. It costs $4,000 for me to bring a band into the States, just in visa costs alone. Then there's a certain amount of headache with the paperwork; a European musician has to state every country he's been to over the past ten years. Now, we're in and out of countries every two minutes, so this represents severe academic work. And whereas people used to say, 'Yeah, we're going to the States,' now it's a bit like, 'Oh, bloody hell.' And I'm a British guy who comes and goes all the time, but God knows what it's like if you're some middle eastern nose flautist, it would be very difficult.
"It's causing me to have Americans in the band, continues Bruford. "It is also causing me to spend much of this year out of the States. I live in Europe you know, it's got quite a good scene and it's around the corner. But I've always played in the States, for my whole life, and it seems very strange if I don't come over for a year or more, but I currently have no plans for gigs there. It's rough out there, what can I tell you.
Attracting Long-Time Fans
While Bruford is gaining ground in jazz circles, a significant part of his audience consists of fans that go back to his days in progressive rock. He clearly draws a non-specific jazz crowd. "They just follow me into this thing, Bruford says. "They might have heard some horrible stuff about this so-called jazz, and they go away with a big smile on their face; I don't really know why that is, but it's obvious we enjoy doing it. I also think that the overarching name Earthworks has been helpful in that, generally speaking, it's been around for a while and that name has become associated with me. Hopefully you stick those names outside any club and people will come; not necessarily knowing who's going to be in the band, but that it will be high quality juice.
"But it's not particularly easy, Bruford continues. "Once you've persuaded the greater American public that you are something, to tell them that you are then actually something else is difficult. Also the Japanese mindonce you've established yourself as a progressive rock musician, it's virtually impossible to get them to write about you as a jazz musician; it's an inconceivable leap of the imagination, whereas for me it's very easy. To some extent I don't mind, I'd rather have some kind of identifiable background than nothing at all, but it is past and I think it's fair that the emphasis be on what I'm doing now.
"In England, after about the required fifteen years has passed, concludes Bruford, "most people will accept that I'm fairly genuine about what I do, and I'm now accepted in the jazz community; especially with the Gwilym Simcocks and Tim Garlands and other people around the easier it is for me. So it's great, but it has been a fair amount of work.
Coming up in May, Bruford will be combining Earthworks with Tim Garland's Dean Street Underground Orchestra, to create Earthworks Underground. "It's a nine piece band, explains Bruford. "Tim Garland on saxophones and woodwinds, Iain Ballamy on tenor sax, Andy Panayi on baritone, Gerard Presencer and Nathan Bray on trumpets, Barnaby Dickinson on trombone, Laurence Cottle on acoustic and electric bassesMark Hodgson can't do it, he's out with Billy Cobhammyself on drums and either Steve Hamilton or Gwilym Simcock on piano and keyboards. Iain and Tim are doing the arrangements. We'll be doing some material from Earthworks Mark I including 'Thud,' 'Pigalle,' and Iain's lovely ballad, 'It Needn't End in Tears'; also 'Up North,' which was kind of our hit; also half a dozen tunes that Tim's doing that he really liked, as well as a couple of tunes of his that are not strictly Earthworks tunes. We might also do 'My Heart Declares a Holiday,' with Iain and Tim doing a two-tenor Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis thing. That'll be fun.
"We're up to six dates now, continues Bruford, "and we'll have a BBC broadcast from the Cheltenham Festival, but there are no plans for a commercial release. The BBC always does a good job, so it will sound great, and I'm very much looking forward to it.
"Keeping it together, given everyone is so busy, is very difficult, concludes Bruford. "The blessing is Tim Garland's energy, which is fast becoming legendary. He has fantastic stamina, because it's ten phone calls every time you think of anything with this particular band. It takes a lot of work. Easy is not a word I'd use. We will, of course, be under-rehearsed; on no occasion will the orchestra all rehearse together, right before this national recording. Sections of it willfour and five guys here and there will get together at different times, but at no time till the entire ensemble have played the music all the way through.
Still, with the high calibre of musicianship involved, it should come as no surprise that Earthworks Underground promises to be a high point of the summer UK festival season.
Duo with Michiel Borstlap
Bruford is also involved in a more informal musical partnership with Dutch pianist Michiel Borstlap. "It's very casual, says Bruford. "We haven't done anything as elaborate as formed a group or found a recording contract. It originated from the Dutch side where a Dutch National Radio and Television station, NPS, wanted to put together a project for a Dutch festival. They had Michiel, they were talking with him, and my name came up. They had the idea of doing a duo, because they were familiar with my work with Patrick Moraz, so they came over to London and we chatted at the airporteverybody chats at the airport these daysand all went well and we decided to do this improvising kind of duo.
"We did the show, Bruford continues, "it was filmed for TV, and then we had another festival and another and another. Then it was I, I think, who said let's go do this in Japan, we could do it in front of Earthworks, which makes it better for me because I don't like going places for one day, it drives you crazy; so we did two Borstlap nights and then six shows over three nights with Earthworks.
"It's completely improvised, continues Bruford, "but 'Blame It on My Youth' or 'Round Midnight' or 'Bemsha Swing' or something might crop up there somewhere. So if the spirit moves, a tune that you know may evolve. But it's really pretty loose. I don't prepare for it at all, in fact if anything I prepare myself by unpreparing myself. By trying to empty out and take the music for what it is, to do precisely the opposite of structure. I'm kind of a structured guy, for some reason the music I've done has always come out pretty structured, and my drumming tends to sound like compositions. So it's great to abandon that and go where the music may take you. It's in the nature of a conversation, with two people talking. With two guys on a stage you can do that, so long as you are reasonably disciplined and able to self-edit; hopefully I won't bore you to death by going on and on with what I'm saying, and then you'll have an interesting conversation that you invite the audience into.
"We have quite a lot of material already recorded, concludes Bruford, "because many of these concerts are recorded to a pretty high quality anyway. They often record straight to CD or DVD, and before you know it your desk is groaning with versions from this city or that city. So I think we're going release a two-concert DVD with a bonus audio CD as well, which I hope will be pretty much everything you need to know about that group. Hopefully it will be out before Christmas.
Summerfold and Winterfold Records
Bruford's latest release is also the début recording on his new Summerfold label, which will be distributed by Voiceprint U.K. Bruford has, in fact, created two labels; Summerfold, which will concentrate on new releases, and Winterfold, which will be used to reissue remastered versions of his back catalogue. With the Borstlap project slated to be the second release on Summerfold, can fans expect Bruford to unearth any unreleased material for the Winterfold reissues? "I have one or two strange bits and pieces up my sleeve, explains Bruford, "and a fair amount of recorded live stuff. Of course, back in the '70s nobody recorded everything because it was so complicateda recording system in the '70s was a mobile truck; a live recording was a big occasion, microphones everywhere and sound checks that went on for days. Now, of course, everything is recorded every two minutes, so we're drowning in back material. But I do have some very exciting playing from the Bruford group, and I can probably add a couple of tracks to each of those CDs.
With a new Earthworks CD, the Earthworks Underground project, and the duo with Borstlap, Bruford has yet to consider the next project. "Of course ideas are flying about, Bruford says, "but right now I'm about ten percent of the way into thirty dates, which I'm putting together myself on the whole, and that takes a lot of work. To some degree it does sap from the speed with which you can come up with new material. It's not a facetious thing when I say you get the music you pay for; or, to put it another way, society gets the music it pays for. We can only go so fast, we musicians, we can only think up new things when we're not actually emailing Japanese promoters. You can't do it all at the same timeyou can't be in Tokyo, write a new tune and play in Tokyo, you can only do one thingunless you're Tim Garland!
Times have also changed with respect to the volume of new releases the market can bear. Gone are the days of the '60s, where artists like Miles Davis would put out a new release every four months. "There's a strong feeling that we have all the music we need, Bruford explains. "Nobody ever says, 'Oh, you've got a new CD,' they say, 'God, you've got another CD? Jesus, why don't you go away Bruford!' So when you make a CD it has to be about something, it has to have a sharp edge to it, a focus. There's often the CD that never gets made, the one you don't hear in between the ones you do hear. There's the one that you almost make and scrap or you make it in your head and scrap it, which is a good thing. So the industry forces you to have tight editorial control, to be tightly edited in what you put out so when you do put out a CD it's the very best you can do; it's about something, and it's got a clear point to it.
"You can't ask people to write nice things about you, continues Bruford, "and to interview you every six months. The system is structured so that it's really better if you don't keep throwing albums out. And I think that's the way it should be; it's lovely to hear, 'Ah, Bill is coming up with a new one, it'll be around in a couple of months and it'll be good, I hear he's got Garland on it,' and so on.
One thing is certain; each new release from Bill Bruford is an event, documenting the work of an artist who fearlessly challenges himself at every step. Like the best athletes, Bruford evolves by surrounding himself with others who force him to raise his own personal bar. The best musicians are characterized by a personal approach that is recognizable from the first note, the first beat; and Bruford is clearly a member of a select group of drummers who fall into that category. But even more, as a work in progress, he continues to examine the juncture between inventive, extended and structured composition, and the interplay that only comes from grouping together like-minded musicians who are improvisers of the highest order.
Bill Bruford's Earthworks featuring Tim Garland, Random Acts of Happiness (Summerfold, 2004)
Bill Bruford's Earthworks, Footloose in NYC (Summerfold DVD, 2002
Bill Bruford's Earthworks, Footloose and Fancy Free (Summerfold, 2002)
Bill Bruford's Earthworks, The Sound of Surprise (Summerfold, 2001)
Bill Bruford's Earthworks, A Part, and Yet Apart (Summerfold, 1999)
Bill Bruford/Ralph Towner/Eddie Gomez, If Summer Had Its Ghosts (Summerfold, 1997)
Bill Bruford's Earthworks, Stomping Ground Live (Summerfold, 1994)
Bill Bruford, Earthworks (Summerfold, 1987)
Bruford, One of a Kind (Winterfold, 1979)
Bill Bruford, Feels Good to Me (Winterfold, 1977)