CD review

Bill Bruford’s Earthworks – “Complete”

Bill Bruford’s Earthworks – Complete
(Summerfold. BBSF 030BX . CD and download Review by Patrick Hadfield)

Complete, a large collection, comprising 24 CDs and DVDs, documents the 20-year career of Bill Bruford’s Earthworks. That’s probably too much to review, which is fine because rather than submit the complete box set, Summerfold let us have the double-CD overview, Heavenly Bodies: An Expanded Collection, which is also available separately from the box set, together with two CDs’ worth of previously unavailable material contained within the box.

Bill Bruford had an established career as a rock drummer with acts such as Yes, King Crimson and Genesis before he set up Earthworks in the mid-’80s. The band went through various personnel changes over its life. The first version of Earthworks featured keyboard and horn player Django Bates, saxophonist Iain Ballamy and Mick Hutton on bass, all of whom played in Loose Tubes. Hutton was later replaced by Tim Harries, a line up that remained stable until Bruford brought the band to an end in 1993.

In 1997 he resurrected the band with a completely new line up: Steve Hamilton on piano, Patrick Clahar on saxophone and Mark Hodgson on bass. Tim Garland took over from Clahar in 2001, Gwilym Simcock replaced Hamilton in 2004, and Hodgson made way for Laurence Cottle in 2005. Bruford finally drew proceedings to a close in 2008, and retired from performing altogether in 2009. He later studied for a PhD in music, which he was awarded in 2016; his thesis is available to read online.

Heavenly Bodies: An Expanded Collection builds on the 1997 compilation of the first editions of Earthworks, Heavenly Bodies. The first disc features the band with Bates and Ballamy; the second the bands with Clahar and Garland. Although not presented chronologically, the set charts the changing sound of Bruford and his bandmates.

The early recordings of Earthworks seem much of their time. Bruford played both acoustic and electronic drums, a new and evolving technology at the time, and many of the recordings have the same drum sound that dominated pop and rock in the late ’80s. Several pieces have a light, optimistic whimsical feel about them, perhaps brought by Bates. If jazz-pop were ever a genre, some of these tracks would qualify.

But there are many pieces on the first CD which are challenging and rewarding. It is almost as if one can hear the band developing its sound, moving from straight time (somewhat surprising given the rhythmic complexities that Bruford worked with in his prog-rock bands) to a looser, authentic swing time. Candles Still Flicker In Romania’s Dark, a slow number featuring Bates on tenor horn alongside Ballamy’s saxophone, is a gentle, emotional number from 1991’s All Heaven Broke Lose. The same album produced Temple Of The Winds, a much faster tune on which Bruford proves his jazz chops whilst Ballamy and Harries fly.

It is the second phase of Earthworks, documented in the second CD, where Bruford and the band come into their own. In between the first and second versions of Earthworks, as well as continuing his rock career, Bruford played and recorded with the Buddy Rich Big Band and recorded an album with Ralph Towner and Eddie Gomez. He may have learned a lot from the experience, or perhaps the young musicians he surrounded himself with in Earthworks brought an extra dimension to his music. Or maybe he was simply ten years older and wiser. Whatever the story, the new version of Earthworks feels much more firmly rooted in jazz. His playing has a lighter, more subtle touch; there is a less ridged, more jazz-like approach to time. And the writing, to my ears, is more appealing and engaging. There is also a change in the sound: an apparent concentration on acoustic instruments over electronic.

Most of the tracks on the second CD of Heavenly Bodies feature Hamilton on piano, with just one with Simcock – though both seem equally creative. Similarly, whether it’s Garland or Clahar on reeds hardly seems to matter: they both seem to give their all on these recordings. The sensitivity of all the musicians, and their responsiveness to each other, makes this a hugely rewarding set.

The stand out tracks though are the two by the Earthworks Underground Orchestra, recorded live in New York in 2004. The arrangements by Garland of his own Rosa Ballerina and Ballamy’s Thud (originally on the first Earthworks CD in 1987) are exquisite, and the enlarged band sounds superb. A UK version of the Earthworks Underground Orchestra released an eponymous album in 2006, but it doesn’t seem to be available at the moment other than as part of this box set.

The CD From Conception To Birth contains several curios, matching demos with the final masters of eight tunes, and one demo only. Many of the demos are the sole work of Bruford, proving if there were any doubt, that he is multitalented. But the transformation that happens when other musicians bring their own expertise and sensibilities to the tunes is fascinating. There are three pieces included which are outside the Earthworks recording repertoire: Lingo, which Bruford recorded with the Buddy Rich Orchestra; If Summer Had Its Ghosts, from Bruford’s collaboration with Ralph Towner and Eddie Gomez; and Original Sin, from his 1998 CD with Tony Levin, Chris Botti and David Torn, Bruford Levin Upper Extremities. These last two in particular have whet my appetite for more by these ensembles, which are not part of the box set.

Live In Santiago is a live set from 2002 by the band comprising Bruford, Hamilton, Garland and Hodgson. They play tunes from different periods of Earthworks’ existence whilst making them sound entirely their own. Bruford’s solos are sharp and effective. Hamilton and Garland are full of passion and fire. This CD, only available as of of the box set, is excellent, a record of a band at its peak.

Patrick Hadfield lives in Edinburgh, occasionally takes photographs, and sometimes blogs at On the Beat. Twitter: @patrickhadfield.

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