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Bill Bruford: In the Court of the Percussion King


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We are all unique. Holding on to some of your uniqueness is the trick instead of surrendering it at the Academy of Contemporary We're Gonna Make You a Star. Since the only school I went to was the Academy of Live on Stage, I haven't had that problem.
From the 1995-2003 archive: This article first appeared at All About Jazz in March 2001.

A charmed life might be a good way of describing that of Bill Bruford. Always at the center of and driving vastly creative projects, including King Crimson, Yes, Earthworks, Genesis, Bruford, Gong and many other collaborations of like minds, Bruford continues to amaze and astound both audiences and the modern greats of drumming alike. Though at times self-effacing, tacit, enlightening and direct, he is always intriguing and knowledgeable regarding the history of art rock and his place in its pantheon.

The envelope of mesmerizing creativity Bruford's been involved in to this point in his career easily outscales most others entire lifetime output, and he shows no evidence of slowing down. To have signed their name to the first Earthworks release alone would have allowed most other musicians to die content, but there are 90 other recordings chronicling the brilliance Bill brings to each project.

His latest Earthworks release, A Part, and yet Apart promises the continuation of the magic of the first...

All About Jazz: You've been hailed as one of the proponents of the art rock movement in the late '60s where those involved strived to create a more intelligent sound instrumentally and in that search added Eastern, Indian and African influences etc. Do you feel this is a burden, a hindrance, accurate?

Bill Bruford: It's a burden, a hindrance and accurate. People come with expectations and as a bandleader I constantly try to remind the audience to leave its expectations in the lobby. Whatever I have come to offer, I have come to offer and it may or may not be connected to anything that has happened in the past.

AAJ: I think that's the best way to be but also probably the most unlikely scenario to find in the general attitude of given audience. It's amazing how much people just want to hear rehash and are rarely open to something new. What attracted you to percussion/tympani/drums in the first place?

BB: Seeing all the great American jazz drummers of the '60s on BBC TV weekly on Saturday nights at 6.25 pm. They were extremely well made programmes that turned the head of a 13 year old. I found all the instrumentalists to be fascinating and mysterious, why particularly the drummer I have no idea. Then my sister gave me a pair of brushes.

AAJ: I know you studied with a percussionist from the Royal Philharmonic. Were there any further studies beyond those lessons?

BB: I had a few lessons at school from Lou Pocock of the Royal Philharmonic at school, but after that picked up the rest wherever I found it lying about. I have never acquired drum technique for the sake of acquiring it rather as a solution to a particular problem. If I was hearing something I couldn't do, I would figure out how to do it. That applies to keyboard playing as well. So I have the classic amateur's technique; I know some very tricky bits and I have large gaping holes. This amateurism however, can sometimes be helpful in forging a style; you have to work around your weaknesses.

AAJ: Right, until they are no longer weaknesses and become strengths. Many a unique approach has evolved based upon this approach. Do you still find time to practice and if so, what?

BB: I practice at home, in between phone calls, and have much to do. I have never been short on ideas but executing them on the drum set is another thing. Plus I am being hounded by all the fabulous new drummers, Bill Stewart at the head of the pack. The best practice you can get is on the bandstand, but in between gigs I feel I have to stay in shape.

AAJ: You've mentioned as your original influences on drums Max Roach (for economy), Art Blakey (for tone) and Joe Morello (for odd-meters), but also Miles Davis (for economy) and Bowie (for his forward thinking). Are there other influences you'd like to mention and what do you listen to now?

BB: Everyone else who ever came out of my record player. I listen to Bill Stewart play the drums and when I have finished doing that, I listen to Bill Stewart.

AAJ: What about Elvin and Haynes?

BB: Terrific, mercurial, exciting, everything that's great about jazz drumming.

AAJ: How do you think your unique sense of improvisation and compositional percussion came about? And also the polyrhythmic aspects that have become one of your hallmarks?

BB: We are all unique. Holding on to some of your uniqueness is the trick instead of surrendering it at the Academy of Contemporary We're Gonna Make You a Star. Since the only school I went to was the Academy of Live on Stage, I haven't had that problem.

AAJ: What made Crimson add Pat Mastelotto and how did you go about working together? Did you have to discuss parts or just play?

BB: Robert Fripp made Crimson add Pat Mastelotto. I saw it as a challenge to play with Pat and we put hours and hours into it, usually on the bus. The trick was to find something that we both wanted to play within our different styles which would add up to being greater than the sum of its parts. Personal highlights: B'Boom, middle section of "Sex, Eat, Sleep, Dream, Vrooom."

AAJ: Can you discuss the formation of Earthworks? The reason, your choice of players, the material etc?

BB: The initial plan was to combine an advanced electronic drum set with my love of jazz, and the very talented group of young British jazz musicians of the '80s whose leading light was Django Bates. It worked very well, Earthworks, the first record, was the number three jazz album in USA Today and it brought Bates and Ballamy to international attention as my former band Bruford had so brought Holdsworth and Berlin. I have been steadily exchanging a rock audience who were nervous about what they had just bought for a jazz audience who not only were happy with their purchase, but are increasingly coming again. Hamilton and Clahar is the third pairing in a sequence and I consider it a privilege and pleasure to play with them.

The material is obviously rhythm driven, and often extrapolates upwards from an interesting rhythmic proposition (Triplicity, Teaching Vera to Dance, etc). My harmony is passable but is usually made more eloquent at the hands of Steve Hamilton. Having generated a repertoire of some two dozen pieces, I can now operate as a free agent dependent upon no man, as regards to bandleading or cooperating with other musicians.

AAJ: The first Earthworks album caused a real stir in the sense that it was so different than what had preceded it as far as the unique mix of rock power with improvisational agility plus the instrumentation chosen. Did the record come out close to the sound that was originally in mind?

BB: Yes.

AAJ: How do you and have you gone about composing for Earthworks?

BB: The music of the first edition was written around a more or less interesting confection of percussion samples, chords, and pitches which was the wholesale basis for the composition. Bates and Ballamy were left to write something on top. Second edition of Earthworks I have the more traditional compositional approach, namely I write a piece from the piano.

AAJ: Does the group get involved in the composition and arranging process?

BB: An initial draft of the composition is rehearsed, and suggestions taken. A second draft of the composition is rehearsed and final suggestions taken. The final draft is rehearsed and taken on tour, then recorded.

AAJ: There's a novel idea (laughs). Are the other members of the group doing side projects that you'd recommend?

BB: Mark Hodgson is playing with Bill Charlap.

AAJ: Yeah, Charlap's getting a lot of acclaim now. How do you describe your role in Crimson and how that gig came about?

AAJ: Of the nearly 90 or so albums you've been on, what material are you most proud of at this point?

BB: Close to the Edge, Red, One of a Kind, Discipline, Earthworks, The Sound of Surprise, all seem to me to be albums that captured the essence of the intention.

AAJ: How do you approach trio playing relative to larger groups?

BB: I seldom play in a trio, but acoustic music is likely to be lighter, quicker, and quieter. The more musicians and electricity, slower, darker and heavier. Entirely different approaches on the drumkit would be appropriate.

AAJ: Interesting observations, those. Considering all the work you've done with string players (Fripp, Belew, Gunn, Howe, Towner, Torn etc) do you consider yourself a guitarists' drummer or have you an affinity for guitar or is it just coincidence?

BB: Coincidence, guided by the fact that it's the person you are playing with rather than the instrument he brings to the studio.

AAJ: What inspired you to write the book, When in Doubt, Roll?

BB: It was rather an elaborate way of doing a personal diary. Sort of, what has been achieved so far? Half time report.

AAJ: Any expected tours of the States?

BB: Yes, late May to June, coast to coast.


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