If you're not yet familiar with Bruford's Earthworks, you can skip this review. It's less about the DVDs and more about what they accomplish. There are two things about Bruford as an artist that contribute to his complete distinctiveness. First, it is difficult to imagine any one who expresses more sheer and unadulterated joy in their work. In a career that spans not only decades, but many musical forms, Bruford is always giving us his best work, exercising the maximum in taste, talent and his natural, seemingly boundless curiosity. The second has already been mentioned, and that is musical form.
It seems to suit both the interests of commerce and the lack of interest among individuals that music, as a commodity placed before the mass markets, is generally presented as a matter of genre and niche preference. The designations spin out in increasingly failing attempts to codify any and every stylistic wrinkle. This effort may have begun with some sincerity but has long since degenerated into little more than systemic branding. As an example only, prog fans may step just outside their chosen niche and listen to some elements of classical too – perhaps the specifically bombastic examples of the Romantic period that so much of the contemporary form emulates – but they are largely less likely to listen to folk, or to jazz. And even the prog "category" is subdivided into dozens of niches, each with a corresponding roll of followers. The commercialized perception then, of music under the delimiting influence of genre preference, becomes inherently and severely blinkered.
And it is in his pursuit of music, instead of a dogged adherence to a single and subordinate form or genre, that has made Bruford's artistry so valuable. From the earliest, poppiest Yes, to the unevening metres of King Crimson, then the jazz-hued UK, out to the Canterbury-inflected fusion / art music of his middle period solo work, the avant rock of Upper Extremities and the purist jazz excursions of Earthworks, anyone following Bruford has had the opportunity to at least be exposed to music different from the music that first attracted them to his work. A valuable and singular accomplishment in a bar-coded world.
The performances on these volumes span nearly two decades of Earthworks, through their electronic phase and ending up in the more traditionally aligned acoustic jazz instrumentation as performed as recently as 2005. The 25 pieces do a good job of covering the band's catalog as well as the preoccupations about instrumentation that now summarize period preferences from the 1990s through to the present. For those seeking new material, three of the pieces on Volume One are available for the first time, a volume which also includes a few pieces from If Summer Had Its Ghosts, the ECM release with Ralph Towner (who is not present in these concerts). Objectively, the performances are close enough to flawless to be perceived as so, and display the way in which the recorded versions of the music stretch and contract with those of-the-moment sprints that make jazz the more pliant and malleable experience it is designed to be for artists and audiences alike – just check out the acoustic version of "Beelzebub" on Volume One. The recorded sound shows more sensitivity to the venues – in Stuttgart; Tokyo; Sofia; New York; Buenos Aires; and Paderborn – than one might notice in completely amped situations: the acoustics and balance change with the stage and each seem to be the fair and correct production decisions. As for artistic decisions, it's well past time to set aside preconceptions about genre and trust to the capital "M" music that results from Bruford's vast experience, care and talent.
Volume One (2001 - 2005)
2. Original Sin
3. Cloud Cuckoo Land
4. Revel Without a Pause
5. Bajo del Sol
8. Footloose and Fancy Free
10. Highland Games
13. White Knuckle Wedding
14. The Wooden man Sings, and the Stone Woman Dances
1. Up North
2. All Heaven Broke Loose
b) Old song
3. Stromboli Kicks
4. Bridge of Inhibition
5. Emotional Shirt
6. Candles Still Flicker in Romania's Dark
9. Never the Same Way Once
10. Some Shiver While He Cavorts
11. Bridge of Inhibition (alternative version)