Bill Bruford: No Random Act

John Kelman By

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While Bruford is gaining ground in jazz circles, a significant part of his audience consists of fans that go back to his days in progressive rock. He clearly draws a non-specific jazz crowd. "They just follow me into this thing, Bruford says. "They might have heard some horrible stuff about this so-called jazz, and they go away with a big smile on their face; I don't really know why that is, but it's obvious we enjoy doing it. I also think that the overarching name Earthworks has been helpful in that, generally speaking, it's been around for a while and that name has become associated with me. Hopefully you stick those names outside any club and people will come; not necessarily knowing who's going to be in the band, but that it will be high quality juice.

"But it's not particularly easy, Bruford continues. "Once you've persuaded the greater American public that you are something, to tell them that you are then actually something else is difficult. Also the Japanese mind—once you've established yourself as a progressive rock musician, it's virtually impossible to get them to write about you as a jazz musician; it's an inconceivable leap of the imagination, whereas for me it's very easy. To some extent I don't mind, I'd rather have some kind of identifiable background than nothing at all, but it is past and I think it's fair that the emphasis be on what I'm doing now.

"In England, after about the required fifteen years has passed, concludes Bruford, "most people will accept that I'm fairly genuine about what I do, and I'm now accepted in the jazz community; especially with the Gwilym Simcocks and Tim Garlands and other people around the easier it is for me. So it's great, but it has been a fair amount of work.

Earthworks Underground

Coming up in May, Bruford will be combining Earthworks with Tim Garland's Dean Street Underground Orchestra, to create Earthworks Underground. "It's a nine piece band, explains Bruford. "Tim Garland on saxophones and woodwinds, Iain Ballamy on tenor sax, Andy Panayi on baritone, Gerard Presencer and Nathan Bray on trumpets, Barnaby Dickinson on trombone, Laurence Cottle on acoustic and electric basses—Mark Hodgson can't do it, he's out with Billy Cobham—myself on drums and either Steve Hamilton or Gwilym Simcock on piano and keyboards. Iain and Tim are doing the arrangements. We'll be doing some material from Earthworks Mark I including 'Thud,' 'Pigalle,' and Iain's lovely ballad, 'It Needn't End in Tears'; also 'Up North,' which was kind of our hit; also half a dozen tunes that Tim's doing that he really liked, as well as a couple of tunes of his that are not strictly Earthworks tunes. We might also do 'My Heart Declares a Holiday,' with Iain and Tim doing a two-tenor Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis thing. That'll be fun.

"We're up to six dates now, continues Bruford, "and we'll have a BBC broadcast from the Cheltenham Festival, but there are no plans for a commercial release. The BBC always does a good job, so it will sound great, and I'm very much looking forward to it.

"Keeping it together, given everyone is so busy, is very difficult, concludes Bruford. "The blessing is Tim Garland's energy, which is fast becoming legendary. He has fantastic stamina, because it's ten phone calls every time you think of anything with this particular band. It takes a lot of work. Easy is not a word I'd use. We will, of course, be under-rehearsed; on no occasion will the orchestra all rehearse together, right before this national recording. Sections of it will—four and five guys here and there will get together at different times, but at no time till the entire ensemble have played the music all the way through.

Still, with the high calibre of musicianship involved, it should come as no surprise that Earthworks Underground promises to be a high point of the summer UK festival season.

Duo with Michiel Borstlap

Bruford is also involved in a more informal musical partnership with Dutch pianist Michiel Borstlap. "It's very casual, says Bruford. "We haven't done anything as elaborate as formed a group or found a recording contract. It originated from the Dutch side where a Dutch National Radio and Television station, NPS, wanted to put together a project for a Dutch festival. They had Michiel, they were talking with him, and my name came up. They had the idea of doing a duo, because they were familiar with my work with Patrick Moraz, so they came over to London and we chatted at the airport—everybody chats at the airport these days—and all went well and we decided to do this improvising kind of duo.

"We did the show, Bruford continues, "it was filmed for TV, and then we had another festival and another and another. Then it was I, I think, who said let's go do this in Japan, we could do it in front of Earthworks, which makes it better for me because I don't like going places for one day, it drives you crazy; so we did two Borstlap nights and then six shows over three nights with Earthworks.

"It's completely improvised, continues Bruford, "but 'Blame It on My Youth' or 'Round Midnight' or 'Bemsha Swing' or something might crop up there somewhere. So if the spirit moves, a tune that you know may evolve. But it's really pretty loose. I don't prepare for it at all, in fact if anything I prepare myself by unpreparing myself. By trying to empty out and take the music for what it is, to do precisely the opposite of structure. I'm kind of a structured guy, for some reason the music I've done has always come out pretty structured, and my drumming tends to sound like compositions. So it's great to abandon that and go where the music may take you. It's in the nature of a conversation, with two people talking. With two guys on a stage you can do that, so long as you are reasonably disciplined and able to self-edit; hopefully I won't bore you to death by going on and on with what I'm saying, and then you'll have an interesting conversation that you invite the audience into.

"We have quite a lot of material already recorded, concludes Bruford, "because many of these concerts are recorded to a pretty high quality anyway. They often record straight to CD or DVD, and before you know it your desk is groaning with versions from this city or that city. So I think we're going release a two-concert DVD with a bonus audio CD as well, which I hope will be pretty much everything you need to know about that group. Hopefully it will be out before Christmas.

Summerfold and Winterfold Records

Bruford's latest release is also the début recording on his new Summerfold label, which will be distributed by Voiceprint U.K. Bruford has, in fact, created two labels; Summerfold, which will concentrate on new releases, and Winterfold, which will be used to reissue remastered versions of his back catalogue. With the Borstlap project slated to be the second release on Summerfold, can fans expect Bruford to unearth any unreleased material for the Winterfold reissues? "I have one or two strange bits and pieces up my sleeve, explains Bruford, "and a fair amount of recorded live stuff. Of course, back in the '70s nobody recorded everything because it was so complicated—a recording system in the '70s was a mobile truck; a live recording was a big occasion, microphones everywhere and sound checks that went on for days. Now, of course, everything is recorded every two minutes, so we're drowning in back material. But I do have some very exciting playing from the Bruford group, and I can probably add a couple of tracks to each of those CDs.

With a new Earthworks CD, the Earthworks Underground project, and the duo with Borstlap, Bruford has yet to consider the next project. "Of course ideas are flying about, Bruford says, "but right now I'm about ten percent of the way into thirty dates, which I'm putting together myself on the whole, and that takes a lot of work. To some degree it does sap from the speed with which you can come up with new material. It's not a facetious thing when I say you get the music you pay for; or, to put it another way, society gets the music it pays for. We can only go so fast, we musicians, we can only think up new things when we're not actually emailing Japanese promoters. You can't do it all at the same time—you can't be in Tokyo, write a new tune and play in Tokyo, you can only do one thing—unless you're Tim Garland!

Times have also changed with respect to the volume of new releases the market can bear. Gone are the days of the '60s, where artists like Miles Davis would put out a new release every four months. "There's a strong feeling that we have all the music we need, Bruford explains. "Nobody ever says, 'Oh, you've got a new CD,' they say, 'God, you've got another CD? Jesus, why don't you go away Bruford!' So when you make a CD it has to be about something, it has to have a sharp edge to it, a focus. There's often the CD that never gets made, the one you don't hear in between the ones you do hear. There's the one that you almost make and scrap or you make it in your head and scrap it, which is a good thing. So the industry forces you to have tight editorial control, to be tightly edited in what you put out so when you do put out a CD it's the very best you can do; it's about something, and it's got a clear point to it.

"You can't ask people to write nice things about you, continues Bruford, "and to interview you every six months. The system is structured so that it's really better if you don't keep throwing albums out. And I think that's the way it should be; it's lovely to hear, 'Ah, Bill is coming up with a new one, it'll be around in a couple of months and it'll be good, I hear he's got Garland on it,' and so on.

Continuous Growth

One thing is certain; each new release from Bill Bruford is an event, documenting the work of an artist who fearlessly challenges himself at every step. Like the best athletes, Bruford evolves by surrounding himself with others who force him to raise his own personal bar. The best musicians are characterized by a personal approach that is recognizable from the first note, the first beat; and Bruford is clearly a member of a select group of drummers who fall into that category. But even more, as a work in progress, he continues to examine the juncture between inventive, extended and structured composition, and the interplay that only comes from grouping together like-minded musicians who are improvisers of the highest order.

Selected Discography:

Bill Bruford's Earthworks featuring Tim Garland, Random Acts of Happiness (Summerfold, 2004)

Bill Bruford's Earthworks, Footloose in NYC (Summerfold DVD, 2002
About Bill Bruford
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