Bill Bruford / Earthworks

Drummer Bruford has had an illustrious career, and he’s one of the few guys from the progressive rock field who actually knew what it meant to be progressive. Considering his work with Yes, King Crimson, UK, Bruford (the band), Patrick Moraz, Earthworks, David Torn, Kazumi Watanabe, Ralph Towner, and Tony Levin, with several notable side projects in between, Bruford’s drumming has always been on a forward moving path. (Except when he got roped into the reunited Yes of 1991.) He’s sort of a genre-less player, in that a lot of his drumming in the rock world sounded like he’d rather be subbing at the Village Vanguard, while his later jazz playing has elements that stem from his training in the rock camps. I like his acoustic sound (that snare!) and sense of color, his improvisational smarts, and his penchant for metrical tension. If you want a fat backbeat, best to find someone else. If you want tension and elegance, and top kit swing, Bill can provide.

The reviews below begin with Bruford’s acoustic jazz renaissance in 1997, though he’d done plenty of jazz oriented music before then. The Bruford band of the late 1970s (with Allan Holdsworth, Jeff Berlin, and Dave Stewart) made some very complex music that sat between rock and jazz-fusion. One of a Kind is their definitive statement; some of the other albums are marred by unnecessary vocals. In the mid-80s, Bill took a break from Crimson to hook up with keyboardist Pat Moraz for a couple of duet albums. The acoustic Music for Piano and Drums featured some of Bill’s jazziest playing yet, while Flags explored electronics to wishy-washy result. Both have been reissued recently with live bonus tracks. In 1987 came the first edition of Earthworks, a creative jazz band with Django Bates, Iain Ballamy, and Tim Harries. (The original bassist was Mick Hutton.) Earthworks matched the young lions’ horns and keyboards with Bill’s hybrid drumkit, where he could trigger melodies and chords on the electric Simmons pads while drumming semi-traditionally on the rest of the kit. The self-titled debut had some very memorable tunes, while the follow-up Dig? relied a little too much on the percussive electronica. The best effort of the original Earthworks is All Heaven Broke Loose (1991), where the group’s various sounds are well balanced with the material. Everyone in the first Earthworks had superb musicianship and they tugged jazz into the future while maintaining its essence. (I don’t think the first Earthworks could be called “fusion.” One of their merits is that they are impossible to categorize, and with all those melodies spilling everywhere, who cares about labels? The band sure didn’t.)

In 1997, the double trio incarnation of King Crimson started to flounder, and Bill resumed leading himself. He left the circuit boards at home and renewed his original love for acoustic drums and jazz improvisation.

If Summer Had Its Ghosts
Feb. 1997 / DGM

Bruford artistically renews himself with this effort, returning to a melodic, acoustic purity, a few electric sounds notwithstanding. He’s hired a couple of very acclaimed fellows: Ralph Towner on guitar and piano (and a little synthesizer) and Eddie Gomez on bass. In principle, it’s a clever lineup, although they’re not really making a “blowing” record here and I don’t know how far out of their way the average Towner fan needs to go to hear it. Ralph and Eddie mainly focus on bringing Bill’s compositions alive, and the album rises or falls on the strength of each tune.

What’s good is very good, and the title track is perhaps the best theme Bruford has ever written. The consonant melody moves in strange patterns yet is ultimately reassuring with every turn. Towner uses both 12-string guitar and piano to fill out the tune, while Gomez and Bruford play a lightly swinging beat. Also remarkable is “Thistledown”, featuring a beautiful, innocent melody. Towner turns to classical guitar for this one, while Bruford uses an electric drum sample (sort of a pitched bell sound) to give the tune a soft pulse before bringing in the real drums. “Never the Same Way Once”, done by unadorned piano trio, is the jazziest track on the disc. Almost on the same quality level is “The Ballad of Villecamba”, which has a perky rhythm and a bouncing Gomez bassline.

Specialty pieces include the Morello-inspired solo piece “Some Other Time” and the free-floating electric landscape of “Silent Pool”, where Bill plays pitched percussion. The rest of the album is undefined filler that matches the gauzy cover photo. “Forgiveness”, “Amethyst”, and “Somersaults” make light background music. “Splendour in Shadows” could have been great, but its elements are lost in a confused arrangement and blurry mix. Towner’s “Now is the Next Time” is kind of lax, although the main hook is nice.

There isn’t an obvious chemistry between the trio, but again, they’re mostly just supporting the material, which alternates between brilliant and bland. With all the distance Bill has covered since this CD, I’d be curious to hear what he’d do with Towner if they ever got together again.

A Part and Yet Apart
Nov. 1998 / DGM

The new acoustic Earthworks includes Patrick Clahar on tenor and soprano sax, Steve Hamilton on piano, Mark Hodgson on bass, and Mr. Bill on drums. Just as the CD artwork reveals intriguing beauty in nature, so does the music put Bruford in a traditional jazz format without a digital drum pad in sight, and he sounds refreshed. The closest this gets to traditional jazz, though, is in the straight swing of “Eyes on the Horizon”. The rest of the time, Bruford’s compositions declare his interests in bright melody (usually consonant, somewhat in the vein of Keith Jarrett’s European quartet) and tricky rhythms. Hamilton does a great job filling in the harmonies (he even co-authors some tunes), while Clahar’s contemporary sounding tenor lends an urban flavor.

The material is almost all excellent. The catchy groove of “Footloose and Fancy Free” (as if “Take Five” met “Chameleon” while vacationing in Brazil) centers a long exposition and hot piano and drum solos, and “No Truce with the Furies” is another rhythm-driven gem. The title track blends reflective soprano sax with a majestic crescendo, underscored by Bruford’s tasteful odd meter playing. “Emperor’s New Clothes”, written by Clahar and Hamilton, features a long, complex melody over a rock groove, which breaks down into delicate interaction between Bruford and Hamilton during the piano solo. “Some Shiver While He Cavorts” may be a little crazy in the head, but it swings like mad in the middle, and “Curiouser and Curiouser” develops a series of, well, curious riffs underpinned by subtle stickwork. As for ballads, “Sarah’s Still Life” is a little too maudlin, though the album-closing “Dewey Eyed Then Dancing” overcomes a sappy melody (I guess that’s the point of the title) with uplifting chord changes.

The material misses the quirkiness that composer Django Bates brought to the first Earthworks lineup, but the new tunes are solid in their own right. The main attraction is how Bruford’s style has matured. For pure swing, he nails the ride cymbal in “Eyes on the Horizon” and “Some Shiver”, and he applies plenty of color to the other tracks, like the cowbell-kick-snare beat of “Footloose”, or the cymbal decorations almost everywhere. Meanwhile, Hamilton’s outstanding piano brings to mind Herbie Hancock at times. A very good album.

The Sound of Surprise
Nov. 2000 / DGM

More formal funhouses and contemporary improv from Earthworks. Bruford again writes most of the tunes, with or without assistance from Steve Hamilton. The handsome leadoff “Revel without a Pause” makes the complex sound smooth, and the playing from all members is magnificent, especially Hamilton’s piano solo and Bruford’s cymbal work. The closing “Wooden Man Sings, and the Stone Woman Dances” is equally impressive. This bravura sequence involves a free opening, sinewy soprano lines, piano counterpoint, a relaxed middle, and an intense, stomping finale. The superimposed metrical foundation of “Triplicity” would be academic were it not for the friendly melodies and improvisations. Bill introduces the track with a polyrhythmic drum thesis, and Hodgson negotiates all the sharp corners with swinging ease, as he does with every tune. It’s a credit to the band that they can give these episodic forms a forward flow.

But it doesn’t always work. The knottier measures of “Teaching Vera to Dance” draw too much attention to themselves, and Clahar, for one, doesn’t settle into the piece. It sounds like it’s in 9 just for the heck of it, although Hamilton rhapsodizes well. The same goes for “Half Life”, a cold slice of filler that takes a melodic fragment through different rhythmic guises. And the dark/light dichotomy of “Cloud Cuckoo Land” doesn’t have a lot of emotional impact. Sometimes, you just need to drop the cleverness and swing, and that’s what happens in a remake of “Never the Same Way Once”, where heated Clahar tenor and double-time drive reconnect the quartet to a standard jazz essence.

That leaves the ballads, both of which are kind of sketchy. The pastel chords and subtle pauses of “Shadow of a Doubt” are pleasant but don’t go anywhere. “Come to Dust”, at ten minutes, veers toward somnambulant sappiness. Last time I listened to it I actually liked it, and the band has a nice soft touch, but length bogs it down. Bruford once mentioned that “Come to Dust” was his response to Jackie McLean’s “Love and Hate”, which was a real baffler until I realized that the melodramatic drum punctuations are the same in both pieces. Hmm. What Earthworks (or more accurately, Bruford’s writing) lacks is a sense of mystery. He’s got the rhythms, and sometimes he’s got the great melody, yet he seems to have no interest in ambiguous harmony, like open-ended fourths or stacked bebop chords. He prefers the enriched pastoral sort of atmosphere, which when it works is fabulous, like the first three tracks mentioned above. However, in some of the slower tunes, you wonder if you have to be lying in a sunlit English meadow to appreciate it.

Anyway, this album goes up and down and there is some excellent music at its heights. The drumming is absolutely terrific. Some say it’s an improvement upon its predecessor, but I think A Part and Yet Apart has more consistent material.

Footloose and Fancy Free
June 2001 / DGM

Two discs taken from two nights at London’s Pizza Express club with Clahar, Hamilton, and Hodgson, and they tear it up. The sound may be rougher than the studio recordings, but the energy is what matters. Hodgson and Bruford are tight and adventurous, while Hamilton does a superb job on piano. Most notably, Patrick Clahar steps out from the studio recordings and lets loose on several solos.

Highlights? Everything is ripped open. Tunes from the preceding albums like “Footloose”, “Revel”, and “Never the Same Way Once” are stretched out with exciting improvs. “Dewey Eyed” is even more passionate, and the update on “If Summer Had Its Ghosts” allows Clahar to get rather nasty on tenor. I get chills listening to that solo. The sneaky “Original Sin” was first heard in a Bruford - Tony Levin project, and it happens to fit Earthworks well. Hamilton is wonderful throughout - I’d list his best solos but it would pretty much be the whole tracklist. I love his intense spot in “Bridge of Inhibition”, a bold tune from the original Earthworks songbook. “Bridge” also features an amazing polymetric solo from Bruford, one of his best on record. He gets a spotlight in other tunes as well.

I’m still not entirely seduced by “Come to Dust”, and “Cloud Cuckoo Land” is still arbitrary, although I like the extra beauty in Hamilton’s piano breakdown. The “Wooden Man/Stone Woman” suite is in the shadow of the superior studio version, yet this take has a raucous edge. “A Part and Yet Apart” misses the perfection of the studio take yet scales a greater emotional height. All variations aside, the main revelation is that however tricky Earthworks’ material might be, it serves the purpose of inspiring a hot quartet into action. The group delivers, and they convince.

(The sister DVD Footloose in NYC, recorded at the Bottom Line, isn’t quite as exciting musically, and the camera work is poor. However, one takes what one can get, and there’s plenty of footage of Bill working his new symmetrical drumset. Diehards can look past the crummy production.)

Random Acts of Happiness
May 2003 / Summerfold

Recorded live (immaculately) at Yoshi’s, this CD introduces Tim Garland into Earthworks as a replacement for Patrick Clahar. Garland, previously well established on his own, brings saxes, flute, bass clarinet, and challenging tunes to the party. A few of his new pieces are featured here, along with a couple of surprises from Bruford’s past.

Of the new stuff, the very likeable “Tramontana” breezes through a rich melody and chords of various shades, all cradled by Bill’s tightwire drumming. So smooth has his playing gotten that you have to count to realize the tune is mainly in five, and the slight return of the final theme statement is a great touch. “Bajo del Sol” features a twisting bass clarinet theme that morphs into a triple meter foundation for the soloists; Garland takes an intense turn on soprano, and Bruford adds a fancy solo postlude, accompanied by handclaps from the band. An awesome track. “Speaking in Wooden Tongues” finds Bill tapping a log drum alongside Mark Hodgson’s bass groove, while Garland explores harmonizing effects with his horn. It’s a fairly complex composition with sudden mood shifts, and it makes sense once you’re aware of the piece’s structure. “White Knuckle Wedding” features another log drum rhythm underneath a Garland flute theme that owes something to Chick Corea’s jagged melodic style. (Corea was Garland’s former employer.) “Turn and Return” offers a slight sax-piano diversion, and “Modern Folk” is sort of faceless, but tightly played. Hamilton contributes the best solos overall and fine color commentary. The music has its jittery moments and tricky meters, but Hamilton smoothes things out, and Hodgson also deserves credit in that department.

Elsewhere, some selections from Bill’s older songbooks get updated. “My Heart Declares a Holiday” is an odd-beat tune from the original, electric Earthworks, and it’s just as vibrant unplugged. “Lifetime Ago” and “One of a Kind” are from his late-70s self-titled fusion band; the former is just pleasant filler, while the latter sounds nifty in the acoustic setting, and the piano-trio link between parts 1 and 2 is a savory moment. What’s funny is that “One of a Kind” isn’t too far removed from some of Bruford’s more recent compositions. Only the rhythmic emphasis is different.

Bruford keeps improving as a jazz drummer, and I don’t think he’s ever sounded finer. His touch, timing, and swing are nearing the master level. That being said, the drum solo “With Friends Like These” is kind of superficial. Better to hear him getting wound up in “Bajo del Sol”, or swatting forward motion into “Tramontana”. The subtitles of those tracks could be “With Ears Like These”.

Every Step a Dance, Every Word a Song
2004 / Summerfold

A nine-track document of the temporary alliance between Bruford and pianist Michiel Borstlap and their freely improvised duet gigs - an update of sorts on the Moraz-Bruford duets of the 1980s. The only tunes on the disc come from Monk: a just-havin’-fun “Bemsha Swing” and a ghostly “Round Midnight”. The rest of the time, the two Bs hold freeform conversations that more often than not develop impromptu structures. For example, the multi-sectional “16 Kingdoms” utilizes a recurring, off-center beat and turns back on itself a few times, while “Swansong” turns a slow piano line into a quickfire interlude and a huge closing sweep. Borstlap plays intimately on “Inhaling Shade” and the lyrical title track, while “One Big Vamp” is all about groove. The only track I’m not keen on is “Stand on Zanzibar”, which sounds like a couple of guys tossing ideas back and forth at a soundcheck. Yet the duo connects on most everything else. Borstlap hides as much as he reveals – maybe that’s just his style – and Bruford is totally in his element. Jazz-bred or not, there isn’t another drummer I’d rather hear in a free improv situation than Bruford, because he listens so well and his spontaneous ideas are very creative. It’s not the be-all end-all of free duet albums; it’s just honest communication.

(A companion DVD features the duo in concert in Holland. The music is good and it would have been an essential Bruford document if the audio had been synced to the video. How does a production team let that slide?)

Earthworks Underground Orchestra
Dec. 2004 / Summerfold

So named for the merging of Bruford’s Earthworks with Tim Garland’s Dean Street Underground Orchestra (a little big band) in 2004. Playing arrangements of old and new Earthworks tunes, the orchestra premiered in Britain, while this CD (or two, if you get the short bonus disc) documents the American sequel recorded live at NYC’s Iridium. Garland serves as reedist and musical director, while several Yanks fill the ensemble chairs, such as Steve Wilson, Rock Ciccarone, Chris Karlic, and even Robin Eubanks, who sits in for a couple of tunes. Henry Hey (piano) and Mike Pope (bass) are Bill’s rhythm partners.

Not that Earthworks needed traditional jazz validation, but it’s nice to hear how the quirky material survives the semi-orthodox makeover. For example, “Pigalle” was formerly built on the idiosyncrasies of Bruford’s electric drum pitches and Django Bates’ keyboards; now, it’s an all-acoustic rush. “Libreville” undergoes a similar transformation. More recent tunes like “Bajo del Sol” and the “Wooden Man/Stone Woman” suite gain lots of supplemental texture. I don’t think these expanded takes are better than the small band versions, but still, it opens new vistas for the Earthworks fan. “Footloose and Fancy Free” is one of the glorious highlights, and in listening to it, you have to commend Bruford for coming a long way. The small band Earthworks tracks, however specialized, were not that far from traditional jazz values to begin with, and so, the event is an artistic milestone for Bruford.

The only downside is that some of the ensemble parts have a chart-read stiffness (“Up North”) instead of welling up from the players’ insides, but the material is usually strong enough to overcome. The solos range from okay to exhilarating. (It isn’t easy to step up on some of these metric trampolines.) The two-track bonus disc includes a dense Iain Ballamy arrangement of the swinging “Thud” (nice bari solo from Karlic) and the pleasant Garland creation “Rosa Ballerina”.

The Autobiography

In early 2009, Bill Bruford announced his retirement from performance. This came as a bit of a shock, considering how much time and effort he had spent building up his jazz credentials, and a disappointment to many long-time listeners. I personally viewed the announcement with some suspicion (or was it denial) – giving up music cold turkey can hardly be easy for someone like Mr. Bill – but after one has reached a certain age and achieved so much, perhaps the natural urge is to sign off on the career and concentrate on other things.

In any case, Bruford provided a major consolation with his Autobiography, published by Jawbone Press in March 2009. It’s a misnomer in that this book isn’t really a life story, nor is it a chronological “I did this and then I did that” sequence of albums or groups. It’s more of an overview of what it was like to be a roving musician in progressive rock, fusion, and modern jazz, and of the artistic, administrative, and domestic facets that accompanied this journey. The chapters are titled for some frequently asked questions, such as How Do You Get That Sound and What’s It Like Working With Robert Fripp, although the answers are often revealed in roundabout ways. As always, Bruford is honest, observant, and practical in his assessments of his own playing and the many changes that informed the music industry. Some may say he has a bitter side, too, but I’ve always viewed his complaints as being humorously intended, though he definitely isn’t one to suffer foolishness from any quarter.

Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, and U.K. are all given special attention, although it’s not of the tell-all variety. For example, an amusing account of a typical Yes rehearsal comes under the guise of a (literal) nightmare years later. Bruford also examines what made his own bands tick, including good insights on players like Jeff Berlin and Allan Holdsworth, and a full recap of a latter-day Earthworks recording session. There are other moments where Bruford really puts the reader in the drum seat, revealing the pressures of studio and stage, whether it is teaching a big band an original chart on the fly for a Buddy Rich tribute record, or performing as a featured artist at an international drum festival. There are the less than glorious moments, too, such as sleeping rough on the road (the doorway of a butcher shop to be exact) or having an electronic drum kit go completely silent at Madison Square Garden. He also devotes a considerate chapter to the balancing act between music and family.

Towards the end of the book, Bruford starts to reveal his diminishing enthusiasm for the drums; it comes in moments of self-doubt, or lack of inspiration, or just the logistical problems of getting his groups up and running. The passing of an era becomes clear, and it’s kind of sad, at least for those of us who grew up listening to groups where it mattered who the drummer was. Part of me wishes Bruford had revealed more details of recording and writing, or actual drumming techniques, but what he narrates instead – the uphill climb of a creative, unclassifiable musician in continually challenging surroundings – is perhaps more valuable overall. Besides, you can find the gossipy or technical stuff in his many interviews. Holding sticks or a pen, Bruford is one eloquent individual, and I’d recommend this book not just to his fans but also to any curious musician.

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