Bill Bruford – Making A Song And Dance: A Complete Career Collection
(BMG 5053875290. 6-CD Set. Album review by John Bungey)
“Listening back to old efforts is a bit like looking back through faded photo albums; you’re mostly embarrassed not only by the terrible jeans you wore, but by the fact that you didn’t know they were terrible.” Come on Bill, you’re meant to be flogging a few records here. Bruford’s thoughts – to be found on his website – seem hardly designed to persuade the curious from parting with their £60 for this six-CD box set.
So let’s have a look at those “terrible jeans” – is there flair amid the flares (sorry) or a load of old flannel? In fact in the great drummer-composer’s fine biography he reveals a real pride in at least some of his pioneering work with King Crimson and his own group Earthworks, for long one of Britain’s most successful jazz exports.
To his accountant, Bruford’s career must seem to have been lived backwards. The drummer starts out with Yes, who swiftly become stadium-filling, cash-generating titans of progressive rock. He moves on to the more risky, less bankable King Crimson. Then the lure of jazz and improvised music with their niche audiences and modest gate receipts becomes irresistible.
Bruford brought odd meters and off-kilter grooves played with a confident, brisk attack to the new world of progressive rock. Fifty years on, his is still the standard to emulate in that field. Listen to his explosive playing on “Heart of the Sunrise”, one of the three Yes tracks here. In fact the percussive fireworks are the best feature of the 11-minute opus, as he knits together one of those slightly laboured fast-slow-fast, cut-and-paste epics served up to loon-panted audiences in the early 1970s.
However, determined not to spend the rest of his years reprising Yes’s greatest hits, Bruford jumped ship (and indeed in a parallel world he could be drumming for a whiskery Yes as they return to play “Close to the Edge” at the Albert Hall this June). In the first of several risky career moves he signed up for Robert Fripp’s free-thinking, chronically unstable King Crimson. The band laboured hard to expand the vocabulary of rock music and on pieces such as “Fracture” they fashion an extraordinary heavy metal chamber music. Starless, also here, is their most complete piece, a melancholic, dramatic and ultimately thunderous 12-minute epic. Wisely Bruford omits any of that line-ups’ free improvs – some of which do now have a whiff of “terrible jeans”.
Bruford’s favourite Crimson era was the 1980s where over three albums the quartet experiments with polyrhythms and complex meters with remarkable skill. Indiscipline is a percussive tour de force but elsewhere the manner in which vocal lines seem to have been draped over instrumental passages late in the composing process – Waiting Man, Three of a Perfect Pair – doesn’t always convince.
By this time jazz was calling Bruford home – here was a more expansive form where musicians knew their semi-quavers and didn’t need a giant stack of Marshalls to make a point. Jazz players had a shared vocabulary that allowed them to create new music fast and effectively. His band simply called Bruford features the flying-fingered fusion talents of Allan Holdsworth on guitar and Jeff Berlin on bass. Athletic work-outs with a whiff of Weather Report are mixed with surprisingly tender moments thanks to Annette Peacock‘s singing or Berlin’s singing bass.
Earthworks Mark I introduces the quirkily inspired writing of Django Bates (“Candles Still Flicker in Romania’s Dark”) as Bruford recruits young jazz players oblivious of Yes or prog. The sound is more homely and there are affecting tunes here, even if the electronic textures, including Bruford’s new-fangled digital drum set, date the sound. No surprise that later Earthworks went acoustic – and swung closer to mainstream jazz. The sound is more organic and Revel Without a Pause leaps out of the speakers but there’s not quite the distinctive personality of that first line-up with Bates and saxophonist Iain Ballamy.
The all-acoustic second edition made an album called A Part Yet Apart – reflecting the band’s uncertain standing with the UK jazz community. It seems remarkable now that the old, generally encyclopaedic Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD fails to list Earthworks in the two editions I have. The shadow of Close to the Edge hangs heavy for jazz purists.
The box set also features some of Bruford’s guest slots, ranging in motley diversity from folkie Roy Harper to the Buddy Rich Big Band (what, nothing from that flying teapot tour with Gong here?). A promising hook-up with Ralph Towner and Eddie Gomez is represented by Bruford’s composition Thistledown. Shame it didn’t develop further. The Bruford-Tony Levin band features some wonderful squally outbursts from Chris Botti before the American was soft-focused into Sony’s, ahem, “sexiest trumpeter in jazz”.
The final CD highlights Bruford the improviser, and is my favourite – adventures with Piano Circus, David Torn and Crimson usefully cherry-picked. The drummer bid farewell to the stage in a partnership with the Dutch pianist Michiel Borstlap. Bruford always said he would call it a day aged 60. The four Bruford-Borstlap tracks are melodic and accessible but possess a freewheeling, go-anywhere openness that both players joyfully exploit. Such on-the-fly invention was never going to fill a stadium but for Bruford, the jazz “tourist” who went native, it’s a fine finale to the Bruford show.