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Bill Bruford: The Autobiography Excerpt: Chapter 10: Is it different, being in jazz?


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[Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Bill Bruford's The Autobiography, first published in 2009 by Jawbone Press, but receiving the deluxe treatment in two very limited edition hardcovers by England's Foruli Limited Edition Books and Records in the fall of 2011. In his book, the veteran drummer—beginning in art rock bands including Yes and King Crimson but, over the a 40-year career, gradually moved towards where he wanted to be all along: jazz—describes his own experiential differences straddling the two worlds, as he often did until 1999, when he decided to devote his career exclusively to jazz projects including his ongoing duo with Dutch pianist Michiel Borstlap and his flagship group, Earthworks.

The original publication of The Autobiography came hot on the heels of his announcement that he was hanging his sticks up and retiring (see: Veteran Drummer Bill Bruford Retires from Public Performance, AAJ News Center, January 26, 2009). Of course, music remains close at hand; Bruford may not be performing any longer, but he continues to manage his own significant discography via his Winterfold and Summerfold labels, in addition to speaking engagements and other music-related activities that have ramped up significantly (and, perhaps, not surprisingly), in the two years since The Autobiography's initial publication.]

Chapter 10: Is it different, being in jazz?

Everything sooner or later needs a name. Cats, children, this book, my hundreds of individual compositions and recordings, my house, my groups; every name is the wrong name until I find, or the item or creature acquires, the right name, at which point I am unshakeable. Until appropriately named, we only half exist. When correctly named, we begin to acquire personality and a future.

Despite an uneasy feeling that we already have too much music, I have continued to create it, and it all needs naming. I prefer to title the instrumental music I produce in an oblique, rather coded kind of language, as if to say: "This is what it means to me, but it might mean something else to you, and that's fine."

The phrases will have an internal meaning, considerable rhythm, and may only allude in a crossword puzzle kind of way—"Some Shiver, While He Cavorts"; "No Truce With The Furies"; "Sarah's Still Life." Alliteration, double entendre, dusty words—bring 'em on. I over-use images of dance and song, because that's what I think I'm causing my sticks to do up there on the stage. It's those that you should watch, not me. "Making A Song And Dance"; "Every Step A Dance, Every Word A Song"; "The Wooden Man Sings, And The Stone Woman Dances."

In 1986, my first jazz group, The Bill Bruford Quartet, was self-evidently in urgent need of the correct moniker, and not only because Virgin Records was breathing down my neck for it. In a panicky phone call between keyboard and horn player Django Bates from a payphone in Wales and tenor saxophonist Iain Ballamy and me in my kitchen at home, we settled finally on the only one of several names upon which we could all agree.

The word Earthworks has a multi-level meaning. It may refer to a man's work here on Earth, or perhaps the fortifications and ramparts of early bronze and iron-age man, also known here in these ancient British Isles as earthworks. In order to build a building, you have first to excavate, to find solid footings upon which to construct, and maybe to construct a jazz group that will last a couple of decades. There are also implications of musical works from across the globe and styles from across oceans. All of this was to be sewn into the fabric of the band. Musicians entering would hopefully use the band as a vehicle for personal change and growth, and, Crimson-like, be different players with different outlooks when they left.

Part of the reason I was edging rapidly toward jazz was because there had to be better ways of creating music other than by staring at your feet in a room full of expensively unprepared musicians—one of my least favourite pastimes. Jazz players not only don't like to rehearse but also are unable to afford anything more salubrious than an afternoon or two in somebody's front room. If it's Django's front room in a large tumbledown and unheated house in Beckenham, Kent, where we ran through the early Earthworks material, it'll have ice on the inside of the windows as well as the outside.

Generally, the musicians come together to rehearse music already specifically designed for the project in hand. The basic harmony and melodies pre-exist in written form by the time the kettle goes on, so the band is only adding suggestions and making sure fingers go in the right places. With superior musical training, good ears and memories, and the ability to sight-read, it's all over in a few hours. If the collective doesn't like the piece, you bin it and do somebody else's. No tears, no recriminations, no blame.

Jazz moves faster than rock in many ways, not least the amount of musical material that good players get through. An accomplished saxophonist like Tim Garland might, for example, be in a couple of groups of his own, perhaps a trio and a big-band, and also is available for another couple of groups under other leaders. He'll also be working on a couple of other projects on an ad hoc basis, while composing on his laptop a large piece for the BBC Concert Orchestra. He's good, he's in demand, and he has perhaps six plates spinning at the same time. The wide variety of music he's playing, much of it memorised, feeds his own enthusiasms and creative juices, and keeps him match-fit.

But Tim's not usually working on them simultaneously in rehearsal. We'll meet him in greater depth shortly, but Tim's colleague and current Earthworks pianist Gwilym Simcock also possesses a prodigious ability to multitask. Like others, musicians now work on the move, booking dates, arranging travel, preparing music, and paying taxes, all while waiting in line to board the airport bus. At a rehearsal, however, phones are usually off and your full concentration on the task in hand is both required and expected.

Simcock handles the material of music with such ease (and with perfect pitch) that at one such recent rehearsal for a broadcast of Garland's new concerto "Homage To Father Bach," doubtless intricate enough for we lesser mortals, Gwil raised the bar on multitasking. With his laptop out on top of the piano, he was seen to be simultaneously scoring parts for his own concerto, "Progressions For Piano And Orchestra," the nationally televised premiere of which was just over the horizon, in the gaps between comments from conductor Garland on the immediate work in hand. Father Bach would have loved it.

By the time Yes had managed to decide what day of the week it was, Earthworks would have considered, deployed, or rejected enough music for a couple of CDs and a BBC broadcast. The modest sums of money allotted to jazz mean that the musicians need to be quick, resilient, self-confident, and know their strengths and weaknesses. It's a warts-and-all music that lives in the moment. There is not much make-up at the beginning of the date and even less cosmetic surgery at the end. Jazz doesn't brush her hair or hang around for long. Even if she wanted to, there isn't time or money to do it again.

The first Earthworks, born 1986, was an electro-acoustic outfit based around the idea that the electronic drum set—recently enabled to play all manner of chordal, sampled, and pitched or unpitched rhythmic material—had come of age and was a serious instrument that could be used seriously in jazz. The plan was that I would play much of the chordal material, and that I would find some young open-minded players from the exciting and growing UK jazz scene and have them play single lines on top.

Saxophonist Iain Ballamy was a local Guildford musician who, by the time he was 17, had already been pictured in The London Times playing at Ronnie Scott's famous jazz club. He was picking up the knowledge fast by playing alongside great tenor players like George Coleman and Dewey Redman. Iain introduced me to the equally precocious Django Bates, who played all manner of keyboards and the small E-flat "peck" or tenor horn. Django was a fugitive from the Royal College Of Music, from which he had absconded after only two weeks because he'd seen a notice affixed to a piano that read: "Not to be used for the playing of jazz music."

Django's compositions were far more interesting than mine and went about smashing as many sacred cows as possible in a gentle, self-effacing, English kind of way. He is now a much-feted composer and a professor at the distinguished Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen, Denmark. I liked both Django and Iain individually, but better still they were very close as people, a musical double-act, a real partnership. It seems that neither had heard of Yes, King Crimson, or Genesis, and it was refreshing to be able to abandon that legacy and strike out fearlessly into a braver, newer, less rehearsed world, in which survival would require some fast thinking on my feet. Bates and Ballamy were essentially the backbone of the first edition of Earthworks, together with the dark and extremely intense bassist Mick Hutton, a man about whom and of whom you immediately understood it was best not to ask too much. The same Mick was shortly to rearrange the cutlery in Bergen University Students Union kitchen.

We were in business to break some rules and ask some questions, and the first question was: "What should, or could, a drummer be doing in an ensemble like this? Is there a right or wrong?" All I had to do was configure some bizarre confections of percussion from this unique kit and give the others space to write something on top. At least we could be sure they wouldn't sound like they usually sounded.

We made three records quite quickly for Virgin. The first, Earthworks (Summerfold, 1987), sold spectacularly well to my rock crowd, who clearly had failed to notice there was no electric guitar involved and declined to show up again for the follow-up, Dig? (Summerfold, 1989). It would take another five years for the band's sales to bottom out and start to rise again in the warm attention of a new audience less familiar with my past.

Meanwhile, trying to configure the electronic pads to produce chords and melodies eventually became a self-inflicted punishment that was threatening to drive me crazy. Wisely, no other drummers seemed keen to leap into that particular quicksand. Any musician worth his salt always wants to push new instruments past their design capabilities, and the manufacturer, in this case Dave Simmons, always wants a high-level endorser to get behind the instrument, often before it is really ready for the market. A recipe for disaster.

In return for free kit, Simmons would annually require my help at the enormous musical-instrument trade shows. Frankfurt, Los Angeles, and occasionally Tokyo play host annually to distributors, store-owners, and the general public in its thousands, all interested in musical gear of every conceivable description. I was enlisted to play the new offering from Simmons hourly, on the hour, in a cramped and packed show-booth. Elaborate claims were made in the marketing literature for these electronic drums, even though they would frequently stall on me, or perform erratically, and I could see unconnected wires trailing out of the back of the machinery. The inventor had not quite bundled them all back in during the last few minutes before the doors opened.

I spent months in my studio at home with hexadecimal MIDI code, trying to get reluctant instruments from several manufacturers to co-operate, and it was a heavy ride. But the results could be spectacular: "Industry," "Waiting Man," and "No Warning" from King Crimson; "Stromboli Kicks," "'Bridge Of Inhibition," and "All Heaven Broke Loose" from Earthworks. In the 14 or 15 years I was actively on board, I suppose I gave rise to no more than a couple of dozen compositions that were absolutely a function of electronic percussion, and whose charm arose uniquely from that instrument. At about one a year, that's not a great output, given the time it took. But I don't regret a minute of it. I was driven then, as I am now, by both the necessity and the desire to find unlikely things to do on a drum kit.

I was changing, and I could sense the audience was changing with me. Some of the braver progressive rockers followed me over to the jazz side and took a keen interest in their discovery of this new less-obvious music, but more generally the rock guys were beginning to stay away. The jazz crowd would not really begin to attach themselves to the group until the all-acoustic second edition, with A Part, And Yet Apart (Summerfold, 1999) in 1995. I was always too rock for the jazzers and too jazz for the rockers, so I was prepared for, and didn't mind, any of this. I was proud of my baby Earthworks and thought the music displayed skill, depth, and muscle. I was on a roll.

It's about ten o'clock on a blustery late-October morning, 2001. A two-hour struggle through early-morning traffic, and I pull my car into the tiny parking lot of the converted church in North London. I unload drums. Earthworks is about to make its seventh CD, and it will be called, appropriately, The Sound of Surprise (Summerfold, 2001). The first surprise is that the reasonably clean recording studio is deserted, despite my request for the engineer to get things started so all would be ready for the other guys arriving at about 1:00pm.

Between now and then there is plenty of technical dinking-about to do—reconfiguring the recording board to accommodate individual monitor sends, choosing the right place for everyone to be with regard to sight lines and acoustics, setting-up, tuning, miking and test-recording the drums and piano, checking the digital recording system.

Around 10:30 the assistant engineer turns up, 30 minutes later the engineer appears, and by 1:00 most problems are sorted and we're roughly on target. This is 30 years after Fragile (Atlantic, 1972), and unlimited company-paid studio time is a thing of the past. Here the clock is running, and I'm paying.

Musicians begin to wander in, are given coffee before they ask for it, and in varying degrees make clumsy conversation and gossip to fill what would otherwise have been an edgy silence. Everyone pretends there is nothing to it, this recording thing. But it is on record that you will be remembered. When your grandson sits at your knee in 25 years time and asks, "What did you do, grandpa?" and you reply, "I was a musician," and he says, "What kind of musician?," you'll reach up for a little slice of audio, put it in the machine, and you'd better be happy with what you hear when you play it to the little fellow, because that is it. Everything else is just your or someone else's foggy memory of what you or they think it used to be like. But the mics don't lie, at least not in jazz they don't. What you are, what you can do at that moment, what you did with those guys 25 years earlier: that was it. Today you'll make the stuff you leave behind, and you may never get a better opportunity to create something worth leaving behind than you will today.

The band is pretty well rehearsed, and we should not, by now, be worrying about where the fingers go. There is a very high level of musicianship here: hundreds of hours of study and practice and performance should ensure that the fingers go in the right place, but that alone will be no guarantee of any music worth listening to. I have just had us all out on tour for 15 dates learning this material, examining it, playing with it, tackling it from a number of different angles. We've discarded the one-way streets that all musicians visit from time to time and that lead nowhere, tried all manner of variables in phrasing, fingering, colour, tempo. We've selected, chosen, discarded. Today, all we have to do to create a work that has a life of its own, that is greater than the sum of its components, is to put it all together at the same time.

The human components are, as yet, far from settled. It's nearly 3:30 and we haven't recorded a note yet. Like jockeys at the Grand National, we warily circle the starting gate, each one reluctant to commit himself to being ... well, ready to play. Most time at this stage is rightly devoted to, and thirstily consumed by, the 'prima donna': the lead voice, the singer, or, in this band's case, the saxophonist. He, like all the players, needs to hear just the right blend of himself and the piano for intonation purposes, but he's hearing too much drums. Changing that mysteriously alters the bass-player's headphone balance. Having been settled ten minutes ago, he has now become unsettled again. I look at the clock, and hurriedly opt to work with pretty much whatever racket is spewing from my headphones.

We need to record three masters a day to get this thing in on budget. After many years experience, I've got a pretty shrewd idea of how many copies this will sell. I know the revenue it will create and the cost of making it. So I also know that at about this level of cost, I can take three days to record and three days to edit and mix the results, pay everyone a bit more than the going rate, and leave myself enough of a profit to make me want to do it again. I'm obsessed by the idea that the recording of this music, of my music, this artefact, must be profitable. No vanity publishing for me. No sir. I'm sure as heck only going to go through this kind of grief if people are going to buy the result with their hard-won money. Profit proves that the music is connecting, that it really means something to thousands of people out there, that you're not just playing to your own mother-in-law.

At last we're settled, and we run the first one down. It falls apart half way through. We complete a second take and go into the control booth for a listen. Here comes the hard stuff. As producer, I must listen sympathetically to everyone's contribution and take on board a thousand small and not so small suggestions of both a technical and musical nature that are flying around the room in the adrenalin rush of actually having completed the first piece of music.

The bass drum sounds woolly, the saxophone too harsh and nasal, the piano is sort of OK, the bass sounds like a rubber band, and could we have some more biscuits? Worse, the bassist thinks his sound is working and warns both engineer and producer away from the precise remedy that will tighten up the bottom end. I agree, knowing the bass sound can be improved another day. The engineer wants to know should he be bussing the reverb to separate channels or will a mono version be acceptable? And we haven't even begun to discuss the playing yet.

I need to make the technical adjustments speedily before we all go off the boil, so I recommend coffee out in the lounge and then pull them in one by one to make minor but all-important sound adjustments. Eventually, we're in a position to discuss the arrangement. All agree that it should diminuendo into the section at letter B, and it will need to gain muscle, but not tempo, as we return to the main melody for the last time. The sax will now go around three times as opposed to the agreed four, and there will be a break for the piano entry, which now has replaced the return to the head. If we cut the last four bars of D, that would make a better transition to E. Concentrate, Bill, concentrate.

Meanwhile, an ancillary discussion between the bassist and saxophonist has been getting heated on the phrasing of the main groove. The saxophonist feels it's too complex for him to work with effectively, but the bass regards his part as an indispensable component. Everyone, always, regards his part as an indispensable component. I referee this to a barely acceptable compromise. And so it goes on. Head reeling, I lead the group out to the studio again for take 3.

Its 4:30, and the music sounds lumpy. The pressure begins to mount as everyone realises that it'll be a late night. Take 3 falls apart again. Take 4 completes, but we forgot at least two of the five proposed improvements, and the drums misread the exit from the bridge. At this point, I think of and refer to myself only as "the drums." It seems less personal that way. Take 5 is our first clean one, and has been completed correctly, but I know there is better to come, so long as all parties remain focussed. We've been playing hard for two hours or so now and take ten minutes to wander about.

Another factor is coming into play here, and I'll have to tread carefully. Different players have differing stamina and are inclined to peak at different times. An electric bassist can go for a lot longer than an acoustic player on an aggressive piece. Fingers and wrists get tired on the upright instrument. Few horn players can blow all night with this level of concentration—lips and mouth go. The pianist may solo effortlessly and give his best on the first two or three takes, but, like most improvisers, the quality of thought wanes with the repetition, and that's what's happening here.

The pianist is saying he's done his bit—the last two takes did indeed have blinding solos from him—but the saxophonist is just settling into it. I get a firm feeling that the saxophonist would do this all night if he were allowed to. There is no more dangerous individual in a recording studio than the performer who doesn't know when he has done his best, which drags others through progressively worse takes because he's sure it's just around the corner, man. To avoid this breaking into open hostilities, I prevent them from going into the control room to listen to the probably unacceptable take 5 and encourage all by claiming unconvincingly that we'll have it in the next two. We settle down for the next shot at it.

I abort take 6 because I stumble irreparably in my own playing, something I haven't thought about for at least the last hour. But at last, take 7 seems good: all parts in the right place, intonation good, strong feel. But just as I put the sticks down on the drum kit with a triumphant flourish, I look up to see the saxophonist drawing a finger across his throat and the pianist throwing up his arms in exasperation.

The engineer says: "Do you want to keep it Bill? Because we haven't got space for another." Now I have to gamble. Do I take a 30-minute break to re-stripe the tape with sync-code, which will allow us to keep the successful take 7, albeit with all kinds of grief from the saxophonist, but the delay may cause a possibly fatal lapse of concentration? Or do I lose take 7 in the hope that we are within inches of a golden take 8, for which there will just be room on the tape, so long as the pianist's open section doesn't run too long? How long is too long? Double or quits. I gamble.

We record and complete a take 8 that has most parties happy most of the time. The pianist and I are probably past our best, but the saxophonist is triumphant and the bassist, who tends to hear only his own contribution, and thus will not become the band's record producer any time soon, doesn't care any more. Its 8:30, and we have the best version we can do, of that song, on this day, in the can. For better or for worse, that's what I will have to play my grandchildren.

Dinner is always a takeaway that I never want and takes forever to come. My digestive system, in its present highly acidic state, is saying: "I shouldn't if I were you." I eat without tasting it. Eventually I manage to cajole everyone downstairs for the easier, slower piece I've been saving for the post-prandial evening blow. It won't get any easier, but as the hours slip by I can let the pianist and bassist go as the saxophonist and I try as many alternative takes as the project can afford.

In the event, the cards fell broadly my way. The digital system worked well and fears about its capacity and reliability proved unfounded. The 15 gigs before the recording were a godsend, the cheap hotel was tolerable, and I even played mostly OK, although I cannot stand to listen to it just now, of course. Such a painfully accurate representation of my abilities needs some distance, needs sufficient time to forget where the bodies are buried.

My family seem joined in the idea that I should make this "easier," maybe "get some help," or take longer in the studio, in the mistaken belief that such measures would make things more comfortable. My instinct refutes this. It always is, will be, and must be uncomfortable. It's about the ability to deliver the goods in difficult and perhaps unpleasant surroundings. Being a performer doesn't mean being able to do it once perfectly in perfect conditions; rather, it means being able to do it imperfectly in imperfect conditions night after night. That's when you polish the diamond; that's the imperceptible removal of grime and accretion over hundreds of nights and thousands of concerts that will let your light shine forth more brightly. Polish what you have, polish and refine. Find it and refine it.

Thinking about it and talking about it and thinking about talking about it are no substitute for just doing it. And after 32 character-building years, you are just as good as you are: your light shines forth just as brightly as it does on those four days in Livingston Studios. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and no one to help. A fifth day won't help or hinder; either way you are going to stare your mortality in the face and hope you can live with yourself a little easier than last time. For me, that's what making an album is.

Why do I like the CDs so much? The actual, physical CDs? Because they got made, dammit, and made to the best of my ability. Despite it all, despite the self-recrimination, the guilt, the resentment, the phone calls, the sleepless nights, and the endless opportunities to quit, the hoops and hurdles were all jumped and the music got made. The CDs stand as a permanent, undeniable testament to the fact that I got the job done. I triumphed, when I could have just packed up and gone home.

Excerpt from Bill Bruford: The Autobiography reprinted by kind permission of Jawbone Press.

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