By Martin Popoff
He is a prog legend, and now he is (as the bio sez) a rarity: the working jazz musician. Bill Bruford has seen the wars, making difficult music with the difficult people in King Crimson and Yes, now making his way back to his first love: jazz. Earthworks’ new double live album, Footloose and Fancy Free (see www.billbruford.co.uk or www.disciplineglobalmobile.com for more info) encapsulates the last few years for Bill (within and without Earthworks), tying some loose ends while underscoring and summarizing his jazz persona, his true persona. I caught up with the erudite, quintessential Englishman to talk about the new album, and the following is what transpired.
Sea of Tranquility: Let's start with news…
Bill Bruford: “The live album has been out for only two days. There is with it a companion DVD, which is something you may have heard about. It's pretty unusual for jazz guys to have DVDs, but that's great; I'm thrilled with it. The DVD is recorded at The Bottom Line in New York and it is, as it were, a companion piece to the live CD in the sense that it looks the same; they are brother and sister pieces.”
SoT: Are there tour plans?
B.B: “Certainly in the United States, not Canada yet. As per my website, we're just putting the finishing touches to 24 dates between Osaka and London and Brighton here in England. And there are a dozen or 15 in the states. We are also hoping to come up the Canada for the Jazz Festival series, which would be late July.”
SoT: How has doing jazz changed your drumming style?
B.B.: “Enormously. Jazz and rock are quite different. Rock is generally slow and loud. Jazz, generally speaking, is fast and light. Rock, generally speaking, is played pretty much all the way through with one pattern. Jazz, as you know, is improvised. In other words, they couldn't be more different. All the great jazz drummers I know play quite quietly and are trying to play quieter. Most of the rock drummers play loud and are trying to play louder. Everything is probably about as different as it can get. Jazz tends to take place in small, intimate rooms where the speed of the playing and the excitement of it can translate well to 300 to 500 people, that kind of number. Rock of course takes place in stadiums where, if you are in the back of the hall, you need to wait a week before you hear anything. So there are lots of differences.”
SoT: You've always been known for distinct, tom tom sounds; tell me your approach to the equipment these days.
B.B.: “That's a big subject, and let's not spend too long on drums. Drums I have no great love of particularly. Drumming and drummers, yes I do; music, I do. Drums themselves and cymbals are mass-produced instruments of perfectly suitable quality and I have no special tricks or techniques at all. I put the drumheads on same as anybody else does and hit them. It may be that I hit them in a slightly different place than other people, or in the musical space, or maybe it's that I tune them slightly different, but basically there's nothing to it. But everything is in the control of sticks; that's how you play a drum set, and the greater control you have of the drum set, the more wonderful an instrument it will be.”
SoT: Any interesting fan interactions you can tell me about on tour?
B.B.: “Well, I'm not sure fans are quite what I have anymore. You know, the people who come and enjoy the music... I think “fans” implies something over and above the music. I don't think there is anything fan-like about me at all. If you come to one of my concerts, you're not going to hear... you're not going to get anything other than the music. So I'm not so sure we really have fans. Fans shout out ludicrous things more or less all of the time, again, all part of life's sweet hazards.”
SoT: Does the band (ed. on the current album, it’s Patrick Clahar, Steve Hamilton, Mark Hodgson and Bill) ever break into musical quotes of well-known songs?
B.B.: “Well, quoting is indeed something that jazz musicians do if it seems appropriate, and then there's a reference to another song, and then they can improvise on that song, parallel to the one they are already improvising on; that can be a witty moment, yes. But we're not musicians who like to show off particularly, although the talent within the band is now very strong. We have Tim Garland who is a recent new addition. So we're very happy to have him on our current touring plans.”
SoT: How about a brief description of what you get on this live album, an overview of where the songs come from?
B.B.: “Well what you get is a sum total of my 33 years in the music industry and the efforts of the other guys who are extremely experienced players. The music basically comes from the second edition of Earthworks. We really had a first edition based around an electronic drum set, dating from around 1987 to 1993. The second edition was really from about 1997 to the present day. Different personnel in the second edition and it is the second edition that is performing on this CD. We have made already two studio CDs, so the music is taken from there. It's also taken from an album I did with Tony Levin called Upper Extremities. It's also taken from an album I did with Ralph Towner and Eddie Gomez, two celebrated American musicians, called If Summer Had Its Ghosts. So I take music from about the last four albums that we've made, that I've made basically.”
SoT: Give me a little more about your philosophy of titling the songs.
B.B.: “Yeah, I liked titles a lot. I think they're very important. With jazz, of course, it's an entirely instrumental music with no literary association as such, so the few words that you do have to indicate to the listener what it is that I was thinking about, are therefore quite important. I like the titles to be fairly oblique. Often the titles carry words to do with singing and/or dancing, which I find... or movement of one kind or another. Which I find, oddly enough, even though I'm a seated musician, it's really what I'm doing: singing or dancing up there on my drum kit. So lots of the titles have words like ‘The Wooden Man Sings, and the Stone Woman Dances’ or ‘Footloose And Fancy Free’, a lot of movement in the titles. Also fairly oblique, that is to say words within the titles will lead you to certain things I'm thinking about. For example, if I use the word shiver, then I'm thinking cold. But it may be that you think the opposite, and that's perfectly OK too. It's just a clue as to what I was thinking about, almost like a crossword puzzle.”
SoT: Did you ever think you would want more words, lyrics perhaps?
B.B.: “My relationship with lyrics is like my relationship with singers, which is that singers are a little difficult for me to carry on the road because then it turns into a vocal group and then the music tends to become entirely subservient to the singer, which is OK, but I've done a lot of that, and I'd really rather be in an instrumental band, where the emphasis is on the instruments.”
SoT: Do you find that as life goes on, the caliber of these young players is frightening to you?
B.B.: “Oh yes! Certainly, way higher! And the young guys I work with are very distinguished players in one way or another. They can play anything. There's no time lag at all between them hearing something in their ears and their ability to produce it from an instrument, which is the mark of a very good improviser of course. As soon as I think of something to say, I can say it to you, verbally. The mark of a good improviser is that the minute he hears something to play, he can play it to you, down an instrument; that's a very fast reaction. And they're very good players. And yes, like tennis and so forth, it’s just getting faster and bigger and more and more amazing.”
SoT: Do these people ever intimidate you?
B.B.: “No, they don't intimidate me, because there's something experienced musicians have that the inexperienced don't. And I think we have a good balance in a sense, that I can offer them an international platform in that my band travels globally and has a high degree of respect and is a working band that gets them out there and allows them to do their thing in front of audiences. And in return for that, I get lovely compositions and red hot playing.”
SoT: Have you found this really tightens up your chops?
B.B.: “Well, I practice the drums a lot. It takes a lot for me to stay in shape, and indeed I do. And I think at this level, most of the drummers practice quite a bit to keep fluid and to keep the fresh ideas coming. Every year people want new approaches, new ideas on the drums, and that's partly what I do. I started before punk rock, I started before prog rock, I started before jazz rock, and all these things, I hope to have contributed to… you know, I hope to find drumming in a different place when I leave drumming than when I started it. And indeed, it already is.”
SoT: Going into the early '70s, were you already quite well versed in jazz?
B.B.: “Well, I grew up with jazz as a kid. From 13 to 18, 19, it had been the love of my life. And I knew how to play jazz better than I knew how to rock, better than I knew how to play rock, when I joined Yes. Not that any of us thought much about rock or jazz. We just kind of started playing. If you asked me at the time and forced me, I would've said that I thought Yes was going to be a jazz group. I didn't know it was going to be a rock group. That didn't matter. It just changed direction of bit.”
SoT: Have you closed the door, or do you think the door has been closed for you, in terms of ever working with King Crimson or Yes again?
B.B.: “I have no interest in working with King Crimson or Yes again, I think. That for me was very much the first, you know, 25 years of my career that suited the 20th century. I'm happy with that and I just spent quite a long time finding my way back to jazz. Now I have a state-of-the-art jazz group, which, you know, gets four stars in Downbeat and has some of the finest players in my country in it. It's portable, it’s light, it's quick, it's fun. I've been known to have fun in Earthworks. I've had more fun probably than in any other group I've been in. So the idea of going back and knocking out a big four/four in a stadium somewhere is probably unlikely to me.”
SoT: For the jazz novice, what kind of jazz is this? What kind of school does it fall into for you?
B.B.: “Well, it's what we used to call modern jazz. Jazz is a difficult word; I know you would agree with that. It's acoustic jazz of course, the classic line-up of piano, bass and drums. But of course people now have heard a lot of other music as well. Now young musicians have heard world music, they've heard Bulgarian music, they've heard Central European dance music, they've heard atonal music, and of course all these elements are in the music. That's what jazz is, an unholy kind of stew of influences, and that's how it should be.”
SoT: Does this world, global thing work into why you called this band Earthworks?
B.B.: “Quite possibly, yeah. Earthworks to an Englishman is a word that has several connotations. Earthworks, first of all, are the foundations of a building. If you want to build something, you've got to build some earthworks first of all. Then it's also the implications of a man's work here on earth. It also implies, yes, music from all over the earth. And finally, what's the last connotation? There's another one somewhere. Yes, in England there are very ancient ramparts from iron age man visible from the air called earthworks. So where ancient man was, so we build up a new foundation.”