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Bruford-Borstlap: Sheer Reckless Abandon

John Kelman By

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One of the great joys of music can be that of distance: coming back to a piece of music, a musician/group or a discography, even, years later to rediscover it anew. While returning to music after a break of months, years...even decades...is not always a revelation, it's likely true that, if the music was appealing the first time around, it will be just as compelling—maybe even more so—when a significant amount of time has passed since it was last experienced. The benefit of a fresh set of ears that have grown through exposure to other music in the ensuing years cannot be underestimated or overstated.

With two books under his belt and a new career as a public speaker, having retired from a forty year career as a recording and gigging musician a decade ago, the only way to experience drummer Bill Bruford's musical contributions is now solely through the passage of time. A co-founding member of Yes, Bruford left that progressive rock group on the cusp of its greatest commercial success to begin what would turn out to be a quarter century of on again/off again participation in a number of King Crimson incarnations, some more improvisation-centric than others.

Those two groups may have garnered Bruford his greatest international acclaim, but his career was filled with many other milestones in the service of others. In addition to studio work with the likes of singer/songwriter Roy Harper, guitar experimentalist David Torn, fusion guitarist Al Di Meola and former Yes-mate, Chris Squire (on the bassist's stellar 1975 solo outing for Atlantic Records, Fish Out of Water), Bruford also spent a brief time, when drummer Phil Collins stepped out from behind the kit as Genesis' new lead singer following the departure of Peter Gabriel, as the group's touring drummer, in addition to relatively brief periods with Canterbury group National Health, late '70s supergroup U.K., and the near-Yes reunion band Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe.

Bruford's best-known work, it seems, has been with projects other than his own.

Still, starting in the late '70s, Bruford began to pursue a number of self-led projects. First up was his fusion/Canterbury-informed group Bruford (the majority of that group's work collected in the 2017 Gonzo Multimedia box set, Seems Like a Lifetime Ago 1977-1980. Bruford's own groups were largely placed in between work with other projects until, following the dissolution of King Crimson's mid-'90s double trio (responsible, amongst other titles, for 1995's Virgin release, THRAK) and the short lived ProjeKct One sunset, the drummer decided to focus his energy entirely on his own work...and, in a surprising move for many of his fans, with a new, all-acoustic, jazz-centeric lineup of the Earthworks group that he first formed, in a more electric fashion, in the late '80s with up-and-comers Iain Ballamy and Django Bates.

With its entire discography spanning nearly 25 years (and soon to be collected in a mega-sized, multimedia Earthworks Complete box set), Bruford's longest-lasting group as a leader spanned two (shifting but conceptually consistent) eras: the electrified Mark I of the late '80s/early '90s; and the more decidedly acoustic Mark II, which began in 1997 and remained active until 2008. Bruford's career as a leader may not have the eminent cachet of Yes or Crimson, but it does, when taken as a whole, represent the drummer's lifelong interest in improvisation and, if not exactly your grandfather's jazz, a kind of music that's far closer to jazz than it is the rock...or, more specifically, the progressive rock with which his career has been largely (even if not quite accurately) associated.

There have been other Bruford projects along the way, from the more intensely electric Bruford Levin Upper Extremities (a collaboration with fellow Crimson alum, bassist Tony Levin, experimental guitarist David Torn, and Chris Botti, in a context far removed from the smooth jazz that would occupy the majority of the trumpeter's own career), to Bruford's sole album with bassist Eddie Gomez and guitarist/pianist Ralph Towner, the exceptional If Summer Had Its Ghosts (Summerfold, 1997). He also formed a duo with Yes/The Moody Blues keyboardist Patrick Moraz, releasing two mid-'80s albums and, more than two decades after the fact, the archival 2009 Winterfold release, Live in Tokyo.

Bruford also participated in one-off projects like his collaboration with the all-keyboard, contemporary classical ensemble Pianocircus, releasing Skin and Wire (Summerfold, 2009). He was also involved in percussion ensembles, releasing A Coat of Many Colors (2006), a collaboration with The World Drummers Ensemble, and, the following year (and also on Bruford's Summerfold imprint), Go Between, with the New Percussion Group of Amsterdam.

But if any of Bruford's own projects best reflect his lifelong interest in jazz and, most specifically, the joy of spontaneous composition, it was his duo with Dutch keyboardist Michiel Borstlap, which convened very occasionally (performing a total of just seventeen dates) between 2002 and '07. The pair released three CDs on Summerfold: 2004's In Concert In Holland (also released on DVD, with a half hour of bonus material); Every Step a Dance, Every Word a Song; and 2007's In Two Minds.

Now, a dozen years after the duo last played together, comes Sheer Reckless Abandon, a budget-priced collection of Bruford-Borstlap's entire output into a small, concise box. With no remastering (not that any was needed), no additional material and no new liners notes (despite including all the original CD/DVD booklets), it's certainly a bare-bones production. But for those who missed this exciting, without a safety net duo the first time around, or didn't pick up all of the pair's releases back in the day, Sheer Reckless Abandon provides a perfect opportunity to revisit Bruford at his most unfettered and, indeed, his most reckless.

By the time Bruford was introduced to Borstlap, the keyboardist was already well established in his native Netherlands and beyond, proving as capable of tackling classical repertoire as he was jazz standards, original material and spontaneous composition. At the time, he'd already released seven albums as a leader, including the particularly impressive Gramercy Park (EmArcy, 2001), a three-CD set of largely solo piano, though he was accompanied by American drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts and bassist Essiet Essiet on a handful of tracks. Borstlap also demonstrated a vividly creative sense of imagination on Body Acoustic (EmArcy, 1999), his reimagining of American fusion supergroup Weather Report for an all-acoustic ensemble of Dutch players that, ranging from trio to octet, included trumpeter Eric Vloeimans, guitarist Jesse van Ruller and drummer Han Bennink.

A recipient of the prestigious American Thelonious Monk/BMI Composers Award for his composition "Memory of Enchantment," which would appear on Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter's 1 + 1 (Verve, 1997), in many ways Borstlap is a Dutch parallel to the American Hancock. As comfortable in acoustic environs as he is electric, he may have reimagined Weather Report's electric music for Body Acoustic's all-acoustic context, but Eldorado (Gramercy Park, 2008) was, by contrast, an electric tour de force.

In many ways picking up where '70s Hancock albums like Man Child (Columbia, 1975) and later sets including Dis is Da Drum (Mercury, 1994) left off, Eldorado is a groove-happy but eminently sophisticated set of music that, booty shaking, resonant and deeply intelligent, blended adventurous improvisation within a carefully constructed weave of rhythm and sonics. Beyond his own projects, over the years Borstlap has recorded or gigged with a bevy or artists ranging from Pat Metheny, the Metropole Orkest, Peter Erskine and Gino Vannelli, to Stefano Bollani, Toumani Diabate, George Duke and Till Bronner. As broad in its reach as Bruford's, Borstlap's résumé made his eventual pairing with the drummer seem, somehow, inevitable.

"I was introduced to Michiel by Co de Kloet, [the] Dutch NPS radio producer who was putting together the 2002 Nijmegen Music-Meeting Festival, November 3rd 2002," recalls Bruford in a recent email exchange. "Part of the point of the festival was to stage unlikely pairings of relative strangers (though they may have heard their co-performers' music before) to guarantee fireworks. We'd only met at Heathrow Airport a couple of days before. It [the Nijmegen performance] was, indeed, the first time we had broken bread together musically. I knew and trusted Co, but still, I promise you, as you approach the drum stool for an evening of completely unprepared music with a virtual stranger, there is a funny feeling in the pit of your stomach that rather focuses the concentration!

"I've always enjoyed the results," Bruford concludes.

All three releases were sourced from live concerts. In Concert documents that very first performance in Nijmegen, Holland on November 3, 2002, with the thirty minutes of bonus DVD material recorded, from backstage, at the duo's show in Maastricht, Holland fifteen months later. Every Step a Dance, on the other hand, collects some of Bruford-Borstlap's best material from its European shows between 2003 and 2004, while In Two Minds' twelve tracks were culled from a particularly fine 2006 set at the second annual Punkt Live Remix Festival in Kristiansand, Norway, along with highlights from 2007 performances in Trondheim, Norway, and Bath and Gateshead, both in the UK.

Following Bruford-Borstlap's musical journey chronologically, from that first 2002 show through to some of the duo's final dates together in 2007, is a revelation. That "funny feeling in the pit of your stomach" results in some particularly vivid fireworks on In Concert In Holland, but the sound of surprise that dominates the entire CD was likely as unanticipated an eye-opener to the duo as it was the audience. Musicians often talk about how the nervous energy of a first meeting (especially when there's been no real rehearsal of which to speak) contrasts with the greater comfort that hopefully develops as they play together more often, allowing them the opportunity to take risks and trust that their band mate(s) will be right there with them.

Performing in a duo is, however, the most vulnerable, naked collaborative context any improvising musician can face, and experiencing the emergence of Bruford and Borstlap's trust and comfort, from that initial burst of nervous energy in Nijmegen, is one of Sheer Reckless Abandon's greatest pleasures.

The majority of In Concert In Holland's Nijmegen performance comes from Borstlap's pen, with only two completely spontaneous pieces (though all but one of the bonus tracks from Maastricht are also in-the-moment creations). Still, the keyboardist's compositional constructs remain jumping-off points for the pair's extemporaneous explorations, ranging from the simple to the complex, from the frenetic to the spacious, and from the knotty and angular to the lyrical and flat-out beautiful. Watching the Holland video, Bruford can be seen regularly referring to Borstlap's charts, but his interpretations remain filled with ever-surprising capriciousness.

The co-credited "Two Left Shoes" may begin with Bruford alone, combining a 6/8 tuned percussion figure with sudden thunderous tom tom strikes, with Borstlap's staggered synthesizer work sounding, early in the piece, like a sticking record. But when a rich synth wash sets the context for greater pianistic extemporization, the seven-minute piece gradually draws real form from the ether, even as both drummer and pianist generate plenty of fireworks, pushing and pulling each other as they continue to shift and morph from visceral power to eloquent lyricism. Seamlessly moving towards greater virtuosity, the duo's return to one of the track's earlier motifs belies, especially with its sudden conclusion, its utter spontaneity.

The similarly unplanned "Arabian Quest" that closes In Concert In Holland's CD (and the main set on the DVD) also begins with Bruford alone, his polyrhythmic expertise and ability to combine multiple meters into a unified whole at its unpredictable best. Together with the drummer, Borstlap once again enters on synth, his relentless sonic wash and emerging motif blending with grand piano to create a sound that feels like far more than the two musicians making it, even as the duo explores a variety of dynamics and harmonic, rhythmic and melodic constructions that might sound as if they were preconceived, but clearly are not.

Borstlap compositions like the eleven-minute opener, "Prologue," draw a clear line from the keyboardist's background in jazz to progressive rock tinges that render him an ideal foil for Bruford. Keyboard washes, synth lines and a sampled voice that periodically appears are blended with piano phrases initially bolstered by Bruford's ride cymbal, though the drummer quickly begins to simultaneously inject polyrhythmic kit work. Bruford's ability to mix meters has rarely sounded this free. Bruford is clearly not a jazz drummer by strict definition, rarely engaging in any of the traditionalism that so often defines even the best of them; but in the context of his duo with Borstlap, this is an advantage rather than a shortcoming.

Even the four occasions where the duo tackles material from external sources are rendered more open-ended, more startling and more expansive. Yes, Bruford breaks into brief periods of swing during the backstage Maastricht recording of "'Round Midnight," but it's his clear avoidance of traditional tropes, coupled with Borstlap's equally unfettered interpretive approach that turns this Thelonious Monk's classic into something that speaks the jazz language while, at the same time, becoming something entirely different.

The duo revisits Monk a second time (twice, actually) on the wonderfully titled Every Step a Dance, Every Word a Song. Following the first of Every Step a Dance's six spontaneous compositions, the marvelously episodic, synth-heavy "The 16 Kingdoms of the 5 Barbarians," Bruford and Borstlap take a telepathic look at the legendary jazz pianist/composer's angular blues, "Bemsha Swing." Borstlap's freewheeling interpretation, his labyrinthine approach to sonic construction ultimately leading to a characteristically idiosyncratic piano solo, is bolstered by a walking synth bass line and some of Bruford's most empathically intertwined playing of the set. Despite Borstlap's more overt sense of swing, Bruford rarely follows in kind, though he does suggest it amidst his startling blend of delicate cymbal work and unbridled snare/tom tom injections, joining Borstlap for a more traditional conclusion.

Bruford-Borstlap's second look at Monk's "'Round Midnight," following the backstage recording from Maastricht on In Concert In Holland, is all the evidence needed to demonstrate how, even when using compositional form as a rallying point, this is a duo that never plays the same thing twice. The duo begins Monk's ostensible ballad in a rubato territory defined by dark-hued beauty (though the pianist still manages to imbue it with delicate pyrotechnics), with Bruford combining color and texture with temporal suggestions that ultimately turn real as the duo pick up the pace. No longer a ballad, if Borstlap has often been compared to Herbie Hancock, here the pianist's touchstone seems more closely aligned with Chick Corea's percussive approach, an appropriate comparison given Corea's long-standing connection to Monk, most visibly on his 1982 recording for ECM Records, Trio Music, where one of its two LPs is completely improvised, the other a program devoted entirely to Monk.

But such direct comparisons are for context only; by this stage in Borstlap's career the keyboardist had long since transcended direct comparisons and had become his own musician with his own voice—a combination of elements, to be sure, but nevertheless possessed of his own style and approach.

In the introduction to Every Step a Dance, Every Word a Song's title track, Bruford describes the duo's approach with characteristically dry wit. "The nature of this evening's music is very much a conversation," Bruford explains. "A conversation between, of course, us and you but also between myself and Michiel and, like all conversations, sometimes they go a little around the block and sometimes they get straight to the point. Conventionally, among musicians, you write some music and rehearse it, and then give it a title. Because we are very much an improvising group, we tend to sometimes have a title before we have composed or thought about music. And so, while Michiel doesn't know it, he's about to play a piece of music entitled [long pause, followed by audience laughter] 'Every Step a Dance, Every Word a Song.'"

Surprisingly, "Every Step a Dance, Every Word a Song"—one of six spontaneously composed pieces that, along with the two Monk tunes, make up the album's 53-minute set list—is less a dance and more an indigo-hued ballad that may be freely drawn from the ether, but remains an in-the-moment conception, filled with structural ideations. The same can be said of Every Step a Dance, Every Word a Song in its entirety, from the title track's darker beauty to the more propulsive "Stand on Zanzibar," where, again, Borstlap bolsters his piano solo with a synth bass line.

Bruford's kit—as introduced with Earthworks Mark II—is as unconventional as his approach to playing with Borstlap. Rather than a kit designed for a right-handed (or, in reverse like Phil Collins, left-handed) person where the drums go from left to right, snare to rack toms to floor toms, with high hat to the left of the snare and cymbals spread across the width of the kit, Bruford is using a symmetrical setup, with snare and high hat in the center, and toms spread on either side. With all the drums also at the same height—inspired more by tympani setups in symphony orchestras than conventional drum kits—this encourages, no doubt, a drummer to approach the kit differently, just as an altered tuning cultivates a different way of playing for a guitarist.

As much as piano dominates much of Every Step a Dance, Every Word a Song, the album-closing "Swansong" is more electrified, and more progressive leaning in its complexion, though it's as much an example of a duo that has, by this time (and despite relatively little time spent working together), found a way of collaborating where improvisation is still more about finding form than it is meandering musical wandering. Yes, some pieces succeed more than others, and some find their way almost immediately as opposed to others that take more time to come together. But compared to In Concert In Holland, the nervous energy of a first meeting has been replaced by greater comfort working together and a more defined sense of trust.

Culled from the duo's final series of performances in 2006/07, In Two Minds finds Bruford-Borstlap honing its chemistry even further. And while there are a couple of longer pieces in this 56-minute set of eleven free improvisations and one cover, the majority (nine, in total) of the tracks clock in at well under five minutes, suggesting that the duo has evolved considerably in its ability to draw music with form and function from the ether. This being all the more remarkable, considering how rarely the two would come together to play. There are, of course, improvised albums where lengthier explorations are edited down to shorter, more concise pieces through post production editing, but Bruford's liner notes put that suggestion to rest:

"This music was recorded direct to CD at concerts in Kristiansand and Trondheim, in Norway, and Gateshead and Bath in the UK. Audience noise and applause has been removed. There has been a little editing, no mixing, no overdubbing and no fancy post-production cosmetic enhancement, so what you hear is about as true to the original performance as it is possible to get. The music was improvised without prior discussion as to tonality, tempo, duration, or any other extraneous expectation—we simply tried to get out of the way and allow the music to develop as it did. It did not exist before the concert; it came into existence, lived and died at the concert, and now cannot exist again outside its recorded form. It has the gossamer thin toe-hold on existence of the butterfly."

The notes also make another important point:

"The music has, of course, been 'worked on' for all our working lives, so those who need evidence of sweat need look no further. More importantly, it is the figment of two imaginations at full stretch, and the product of two minds which are trying hard to persuade their owners they have never played music before, and they are really just two kids in a great big sonic sandpit. We like it like that..."

With each successive album, Bruford-Borstlap's ability to create something from nothing evolved significantly, whether it's the gentle balladry of the opening "Kinship," the house of cards construct of the title track, the synth-heavy (but still piano-driven) "From the Source, We Tumble Headlong" and funkified, Fender Rhodes-driven "Flirt," or the soft evocations of "Low Tide, Camber Sands," the more eminently free "The Art of Conversation," the log drum-driven "Conference of the Bees" and aptly titled "Sheer Reckless Abandon." And when the duo approaches the one composed track of the set, Miles Davis' "All Blues" (from the trumpeter's 1959 Columbia Records classic, Kind of Blue), it's with the same lack of preconception. Yes, the overall form is there, but what Bruford-Borstlap does with it? As with all of this duo's music, it's anyone's guess...and, more likely than not, something that differs significantly from one night to the next.

Throughout Sheer Reckless Abandon, it's clear that Bruford and Borstlap are each virtuosos on their respective instruments. Each is also clearly comfortable enough in his own skin, coming to the table with nothing to prove. And, with each player possessing a broad range of musical experiences, it seems inevitable that they should have ultimately led to precisely this moment. Sometimes experiencing a group is best done through individual releases, but for Bruford-Borstlap, the duo's relatively brief time spent together is best taken as the three-and-a-quarter hours whole documented across Sheer Reckless Abandon.

That Bruford-Borstlap was consistently able to "get out of the way and allow the music to develop" with such increasing skill and musical selflessness is an experience well worth revisiting on Sheer Reckless Abandon. Evolving so palpably over the course of six years and just seventeen live performances is a remarkable achievement by any standard, and the pair's growth as a duo is wonderfully captured across Sheer Reckless Abandon's three CDs and one DVD. For those familiar with this extraordinary duo but who have allowed its music to fade into the past, now's the time to revisit it. For those who've never heard this duo? An exceptional example of empathic interaction and in-the-moment spontaneous creation awaits.

Track Listing: CD1 (In Concert In Holland): Prologue; Game of Chess; Conception; Camilla; Two Left Shoes; Mister B.B.; Arabian Quest. DVD1: (In Concert In Holland): Prologue; Game of Chess; Conception; Camilla; Two Left Shoes; Mister B.B.; Arabian Quest: Happenstance (backstages footage); Peacock Strut (backstages footage); Sintar Klaas is Boos (backstages footage); 'Round Midnight (backstages footage). CD2 (Every Step a Dance, Every Word a Song: The 16 Kingdoms Of The 5 Barbarians; Bemsha Swing; Inhaling Shade; One Big Vamp; 'Round Midnight; (Announcement); Every Step A Dance, Every Word A Song; Stand On Zanzibar; Swansong. CD3 (In Two Minds): Kinship; In Two Minds; From the Source, We Tumble Headlong; Flirt; Low Tide, Camber Sands; The Art of Conversation; Conference of the Bees; Sheer Reckless Abandon; Duplicity; Shadow Dance; The Odd One Out; All Blues.

Personnel: Bill Bruford: drums, log drum (CD2, CD3); Michiel Borstlap; piano, keyboards.

Title: Sheer Reckless Abandon | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Summerfold Records

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