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.
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