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Bill Bruford: The Autobiography

John Kelman By

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Before he puts 40 years of performing on 100 albums and 3,000 concerts behind him, this book addresses matters anecdotal, technical, practical, emotional and philosophical with style, panache and élan.
The Autobiography
Bill Bruford
Trade Paperback; 352 pages
ISBN: 978-1-906002-23-7
Jawbone Press
2009

"Veteran drummer Bill Bruford Retires From Public Performance" the AAJ news item announced on January 26, 2009. At progressive rock boards like Progressive Ears it was enough to cause considerable consternation amongst fans who date back to Bruford's early days with Yes and King Crimson, and who have stuck with him through many subsequent Crimson incarnations, two versions of his flagship Earthworks group and his all-improv duet with Dutch pianist Michiel Borstlap.

Amongst the comments:

"That's already won the prize of 'Worst news of '09'"

"Bill has been a key player in progressive rock, full stop. Not just Yes, King Crimson and Genesis but even stints with National Health, Gong and not forgetting his own stuff with UK and Bruford. That he is retiring makes me feel old and is a sad day for prog indeed."

"Dammit, some of the happiest and most carefree times in my life have been spent at this man's shows."

"I'm happy for him. He's choosing a new path. I'm just nostalgic and rather sad for all of us music crazy young lads with a spring in our step and a look of eagles in our eyes. Time is passing."

"Bruford has for years been the thread that spins through my record collection."

Sentimental? Maybe, but Bruford has managed to straddle both the art rock and jazz worlds like few others have. For those wondering why someone like Bruford would decide to retire on the tender cusp of just 60 years old, The Autobiography—in particular the final 40 pages—goes into great detail to answer that question—and it may well come as a great surprise to many. Without giving it all away, Bruford has reached a point where the pluses of pursuing performance are far outweighed by a combination of matters practical and existential.

But as sad an event as it may be to see such a vital and influential musical force hang up his sticks, The Autobiography reads like a combination of "tell all" and "tell it like it is." For those wanting to know what it was like working with King Crimson co-founder and de facto leader Robert Fripp, it's there; for those wondering exactly why he left Yes on the cusp of their greatest success, it's there too. Without getting down and dirty, Bruford reveals just enough about many of the famous names with whom he's crossed paths to grab the attention of inquiring minds, but in an engaging and dryly witty style that makes for an easy, can't-put-it-down read. Rather than being strictly chronological, Bruford travels back and forth in time with ease, making it clear that the choices he's made in his musical life were not just understandable, but inevitable.

Bruford uses the book as an opportunity to definitively address many of the questions, once and for all, that he's tried hard to avoid throughout his career ("Do You Still Like Progressive Rock?" "How Do You Get That Fantastic Sound?" "What Do You Mean, Your 'Spiritual Home With a Bed of Nails'?" "So You Still See Any of the Old Guys?"). As Bruford has pushed ever forward, deserting the art/progressive rock arena in the late 1990s to devote himself entirely to jazz and achieving no shortage of acclaim for albums including Earthworks Underground Orchestra (Summerfold, 2006) and In Two Minds (Summerfold, 2008), he still can't completely escape his past—nor should he. Like it or not, he's one of the fundamental founding fathers of progressive rock, and always will be. That he managed to desert it entirely in the last decade of his career only reinforces his strong work ethic, forward-thinking creativity and desire to look ahead and not back, even against the backwash of fans who would like to hear him play "Close to the Edge" or "Red" just one more time.

Bruford is not at all shy to take credit as an innovator as he describes, for example, his foray into electronic and chordal drums with 1980s-era King Crimson and Earthworks Mark I. Still, he remains humble about raising his own game through exposure to players more advanced than himself. He credits percussionist Jamie Muir—a brief member of the mid-1970s King Crimson that Bruford joined for Larks' Tongues in Aspic (DGM Live, 1973)—for opening his mind to far greater possibilities as a percussionist and improvising musician.

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