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Bill Bruford: No Random Act

By Published: May 4, 2004
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.

Economic Considerations

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 York—a 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.

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