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Bill Bruford: Earthly Endeavors, Heavenly Pursuits

Ian Patterson By

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Little gestures take on a big meaning in ballads. And there is equally a sense of danger for the soloist, little errors are also magnified.
Bill BrufordFor twenty years drummer Bill Bruford has been the engine of Earthworks, one of Britain's most inventive and original jazz bands. Earthworks slowly revolving door has, over the years, seen the coming and going of some of Britain's finest young jazz talent, from keyboardist Django Bates and saxophonist Iain Ballamy to ex-Chick Corea sideman and current reed/flute maestro Tim Garland, and current pianist Gwilym Simcock. The fostering of such youthful talent has brought comparisons between Bruford's Earthworks and Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.

The longevity of Earthworks, and the critical acclaim from around the world, is due in large part to Bruford's ability to experiment and evolve from an electronic to an acoustic band without compromising Earthworks' core values, namely melody, improvisation and a total disregard for categorization. There is simply no jazz quartet quite like Earthworks.

To celebrate two decades of Earthworks' existence, Bruford has recently released a double video anthology on his Summerfold label, which captures the various incarnations of Earthworks in concert over the years. Bruford took time out to talk to All About Jazz about the first twenty years of this remarkable group.

All About Jazz: What can you remember of Earthworks' first gig?

Bill Bruford: We were on a gig in Japan, invited by [saxophonist] Sadao Watanabe. It was a high-priced event for the perfume company Shiseido. We'd done a fair bit of rehearsing back in the UK with electronic kits and volume pedals etc, but live onstage was another ballgame. It fell apart immediately, and went downhill rapidly after that. We got better, though. In a hybrid electro-acoustic group, you are bound to struggle with the internal sound. All-acoustic is one thing, all-electric another, but with a hybrid the internal balance of a group is shot to pieces. So you risk a lot, but there is a big potential upside if it works. Most people, wisely, don't deal with it.

AAJ: When was the first gig?

BB: The band played Tokyo from June 25 to 27, 1986.

AAJ: When Earthworks started twenty years ago, a lot of people had preconceptions about what another Bill Bruford band would sound like; did you enjoy shaking up those preconceptions?

BB: I enjoy shaking up pretty much anything, wherever possible—particularly myself! I'm in the "shaking up game; that's what you pay me to do.

AAJ: I remember seeing Earthworks in London in '87 or '88 and being blown away by Django Bates and Iain Ballamy; where did you first come across them and what was your reaction to them?

BB: Iain Ballamy was a local Surrey saxophonist—very talented, very young. I gave him a call to do some demos with me when I was hanging out locally with Patrick Moraz, keyboard player, who lived 200 yards away, and had a studio. One of the demos became "Pressure," on Earthworks' first album. Anyway, Iain said he was working with this guy Django Bates. I went along to see them, and I immediately liked them both as individuals, but even better as a double-act!

The context here is that jazz in the UK in the mid-1980s was having one of its periodic attacks of fashionability with the young, mostly centered around an anarchic big band called Loose Tubes, which had a regular national TV show, and for which Django was the prime writer. I wanted to use the best young home-grown talent and give them a fuzz-box and more than twenty minutes in a studio. Django is now a very distinguished Professor in a Danish University. A wonderful musician and better composer. Check out "Candles Still Flicker in Romania's Dark" on the new DVD.

AAJ: Yes, a wonderful tune. Immediately striking, looking at the DVDs, is that there is no footage from the 1980s. Is it possible that no footage exists from the first few years of the band?

BB: Correct. Earliest footage I could get was 1991.

AAJ: Is that to say that footage exists which we may see in a future?

BB: None to my knowledge that is of releasable quality.

AAJ: You've mentioned cost and logistics as the reasons for abandoning the electronic kit and returning to an acoustic one. Given the right circumstances, would you like to return to the electronic side of percussion within the context of Earthworks?

BB: There were, and continue to be, several problems yet with electronic percussion, which, having greater strength in those days, I willfully chose to ignore. For example, amplification. The instruments, being relatively inexpressive, are either immediately too loud or immediately too quiet, for that most dynamic of musics, jazz. The "headroom via amplification is too small. Also, if something is moving through electronic circuitry, there is a loss in connection with the audience. It's as if a veil, or see-thru gauze, has descended between you and the listener.

With most electric or electronic instruments, you assume that that which is gained in timbre and color exceeds that which is lost in intimacy and expressiveness. With electronic percussion, that's a close call, in part because the audience tends to listen with its eyes. If I play a big drum with a big heavy strike, the audience witnessing that shares a direct visceral pleasure in the beauty of drum, drummer, and action. That in part explains the substantial turnout of middle-aged housewives in UK Arts Centers for any muscular, oiled, and loin-clothed Taiko group from Japan.

If I play a little triangle with a little small note and correspondingly small action, same result—the gesture is understood. But if through electronics, I play a little stroke on a little pad, and a huge sound comes out, or a chord comes out, or a big stroke produces a little tambourine sound, there is a disconnection—a feeling of having been cheated, robbed. The listener may not voice this in so many words, but something feels weird to him, and rightly so. It is weird. He's been robbed of the cultural context in which he can make sense of things. Finally, the manufacturing quality was poor, and the instruments consequently unreliable.

Much has happened since. The Japanese have produced very clever and utterly reliable facsimiles of drum kits, which are much used as "silent practice kits in apartments, and in which I have no interest at all.


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