Bill Bruford

As a founding member of the rock band YES, drummer Bill Bruford subsequently went on to a sophisticated engagement with straight ahead and several of its iterations through his evolving jazz group Earthworks. Yet on his way to becoming a jazzman, Bruford left YES, played with the band Genesis (as a friend of Phil Collins), and joined King Crimson (as a nemesis of Robert Fripp). He tells his story in Bill Bruford – The Autobiographyoriginally published in 2009. This marks Bruford as more of a musical flaneur than journeyman drummer.

Journeyman Drummer to Musical Flaneur

That a jazz player engages with a rock band is not surprising. Sonny Rollins plays lyrically Bill Bruford Earthworks(and uncredited) with the Rolling Stones on Tattoo You and then there is Branford Marsalis’ extensive touring with Sting. Even a hootenanny is possible with Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson recording two successful albums together. Conversely, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea recording with Joshua Redman on Momentum shows the musical collaborations flow in both directions. But completely changing one’s skin is a different matter.

Though rockers like Peter White (collaborator with Al Stewart) and Craig Chaquiso (Jefferson Starship stalwart) both chose to pursue a different sound and enjoy influential smooth jazz careers. Even a rock legend, Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, has been a leader on several jazz albums (most recently with the Danish Radio Big Band). Yet Bruford’s evolution as a jazz musician has a different feel to it. I recently played the two albums Close to the Edge (YES, 1972), and Random Acts of Happiness (Earthworks, 2004), back to back. Perhaps Bruford’s career doesn’t ever really bifurcate with rock and pop segregated from modern jazz?

Bill Bruford’s first foray into Jazz

While earlier works such as Gradually Going Tornado from 1980 are often described as Bruford’s first foray into the jazz idiom, I’ll argue that the first, eponymous release of Earthworks from 1987 definitively marks the beginning of a career in jazz. My introduction to his jazz side came much later with If Summer Had Its Ghosts from 1997, featuring Eddie Gomez (bassist for the Bill Evans Trio) and Ralph Towner (piano and guitars).

I did not immediately make the connection between Bruford and YES on this recording. A bit quirky at times, this is nonetheless a solid jazz trio playing in a straight-ahead style.  There is a confidence in this music that often eludes earlier Earthworks recordings. A decade after Buford’s first Earthworks release, Ghosts marks a significant milestone in Bruford’s engagement with jazz.

Bill Bruford’s Jazz Career Highlights

Bruford would perform with several iterations of the band Earthworks, ultimately recording nine albums. Their fifth album, The Sound of Surprise from 2001 remains my favorite of the Earthworks catalog. Featuring Steve Hamilton on piano, Patrick Clahar on saxophones, and Mark Hodgson on bass, Bruford’s playing under-grids the music rather than driving it. Surprise unsurprisingly led the band to both financial success and critical accolades, particularly in America where concert opportunities for British jazz quartets were pretty much non-existent. The opening number, Revel Without a Pause, is a testament to the band’s jazz credentials. A live recording, as were many of the Earthworks releases, the playing is tight and forceful.

Finally, I’ll mention Random Acts of Happiness, 2004, with Earthworks now featuring Tim Garland on sax, joining regulars Steve Hamilton and Mark Hodgson. Garland plays a strong, muscular sax, flute, and clarinet making this the edgiest of Earthworks albums. In some ways, Random represents the many influences across the jazz spectrum that must have impacted Bruford. Compared with Close to the Edge from 1972 I was reminded of the quote, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The distance between these bookends of Bruford’s career is both great and small.

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