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.

AAJ: Earthworks has always functioned as a quartet, although you did invite guitarist Larry Coryell to join the band for some memorable concerts in the summer of 2000. Was that collaboration merely a bit of fun, or were you toying with the idea of adding new voices to the band?

BB: Larry was invited to join the band as a little extra glamour/attraction for a European summer tour. He practiced hard for a very idiosyncratic set of music that is not at all guitar-orientated, which was just as well. Our tenor-player at the time, Patrick Clahar, got sick, and Larry was suddenly holding down the main chair. He did great—but I wasn't thinking of the permanent incorporation of guitar.

AAJ: In Django Bates, Steve Hamilton, and now Gwilym Simcock, you've worked with some outstanding pianists over the years, not forgetting your collaborations with Patrick Moraz and, more recently, Michiel Borstlap. What do you look for in a pianist?

BB: Well, the same thing that I think you look for in any musician—flexibility, constant invention, great sense of humor, punctuality, reliability, and all round genius—in no particular order! If he can write, great, we'll play his stuff too. I love to play with the sound of a grand—one of the few instruments that can out-do a drummer in terms of power, strength, and delicacy. I've been doing a fair bit with my Dutch partner Michiel, and my next Summerfold CD will be of fresh material with him.

AAJ: Do you have a release date for that?

BB: Late this year [2007] or early next.

AAJ: One of three previously unreleased songs on the DVDs, "Youth, reminds me that you have always put a lot of faith in young musicians in Earthworks; has this been a deliberate choice on your part?

BB: Yes, I believe so. Younger men tend not to have yet started their own recording career, the demands of which would probably conflict with the Earthworks schedule. They also tend to be willing, punctual, open-minded, and affordable—four essential attributes. The exchange generally works well—they get the benefit of the high-profile international platform that I can provide, and I get the benefit of all that enthusiasm and red-blooded vigor. All groups work on a balance of needs between the individuals—get that right, and you'll get a good and happy group.

Anyone over the age of forty is probably still struggling to some extent with the old "is it jazz, or is it rock? quandary, whereas the younger people tend to have absorbed both, and gone beyond that old chestnut. Those are the people I need in Earthworks.

AAJ: After ten years, the electric bass returns in the hands of Laurence Cottle. What prompted this change in the instrumentation of the band?

BB: Excess baggage charges. It may come as a surprise to you that what the creative musician can and cannot afford to do in the commercial world is mostly circumscribed by logistics and costs. A society gets the music it pays for! I love upright bass and I used to love my electronic kit, but when both appeared too often in little pieces on the baggage claim, something had to give. More seriously, Laurie is a killer player, and if he plays electric, that's fine with me.

AAJ: Earthworks has always been a collective in the sense that songwriting is shared; this must be the ideal situation in a real band, no?

BB: I'm not a sufficiently confident writer to want to dominate proceedings entirely. I suppose the last CD I wrote the bulk of the material for was The Sound of Surprise (Summerfold, 2001) in 2001—incidentally one of my favorite Earthworks records. Eventually, the admin load and the typing became too much, so the "new guys, Garland and Simcock, are in the band not only because they play beautifully, but they provide excellent material. Generally, I think it's much better when the writing is shared.

AAJ: At a concert in Thailand in 2006 you said that you enjoy playing on a ballad more than taking a drum solo. You write a mean ballad yourself, (I'm thinking of "Seems like a Lifetime Ago" ). Which balladeers have inspired you over the years?

BB: Wow, were you there? I'm not sure it's a case of specific composition—although Jackie McLean's "Love and Hate" was a template for my "Come to Dust"—more in the enjoyment of getting the execution right. Letting notes hang, having time to give notes their full value. 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. Live, you can hear the room go quiet as the focus of musician and listener adjusts to the new delicacy.

AAJ: You drummed on, what for me is one of the most beautiful ballads ever written, "Hallucinating Light" by Roy Harper. What are your memories of the H.Q. (Science Fiction, 1975) recording sessions? How do you rate Harper as a songwriter?

BB: I think Roy is a little slice of magic. A British institution. That was recorded back in my "studio musician" days in the 1970s. Personally I prefer "When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease," but that's a particularly English thing, a sense heightened by the presence of the Grimesthorpe Colliery Brass Band. That, of course, connects you directly to Earthworks track one on Volume 2 of the new DVDs, and our only "hit —"Up North," which also alludes to the northern brass bands of England.
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