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Bill Bruford: No Random Act

John Kelman By

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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."
Much has already been written about drummer/composer/bandleader Bill Bruford's role in the development of progressive rock. As a founding member of Yes and a key participant in numerous King Crimson incarnations to name but two, Bruford's instantly recognizable sound and mathematical precision helped define a number of classic recordings, including Yes' Fragile and Close to the Edge , and King Crimson's Lark's Tongues in Aspic , Discipline and Thrak. But as important as he has been in pushing the boundaries of that genre forward, he's always been a jazzer at heart.

"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 set—two cymbals and two toms on each side, a snare and high hat in the middle—has 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.

Compositions—Old 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.
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