JAZZ PERCUSSIONIST AND COMPOSER EXTRAORDINAIRE BILL BRUFORD put his sticks down more than a decade ago, but the drumming legend recently has been spending quite a bit of time making sure his legacy is preserved for future music-loving generations. One of the most impressive collections of Bill’s music to be reissued is that of his modern jazz collective Bill Bruford’s Earthworks, a comprehensive and rewarding box set that has sold “like hotcakes” to his faithful followers.
Red Hot Rock Magazine decided together with Bill that the following interview would concentrate on Earthworks Complete and his time spent recording and performing together with the various wonderful musicians that passed through the ranks of his groundbreaking outfit. Bill’s days with Yes and King Crimson and his various other projects will be covered in a later conversation. Needless to say, it was an absolute privilege and honor to speak with a man widely acknowledged as one of the most outstanding purveyors of his craft.
RED HOT ROCK MAGAZINE: Hello. You must be Mr. Bruford.
BILL BRUFORD: Ha ha. Hi, Ritchie. How are you doing today?
RHRM: Very good, thank you. It is an absolute honor to speak to you. I have been listening to your music for many years. But before we jump into your music, I need to ask how we should address each other. Do we use titles and I call you Dr. Bruford or do I call you Bill and you call me Ritchie? Because I am also a drummer, or a lapsed drummer we should say, with a doctorate and a license to practice law.
BB: My name is Bill.
RHRM: Perfect. I have promised that we would stick principally to Earthworks in this conversation and reserve discussion of your other work for later talks. But if I may, I would like to relate a few observations about your work as a drummer, musician and composer and your body of work overall without getting into any specifics before we dive into the wonderful Earthworks catalog and fantastic box set that has recently been released.
BB: Ha ha ha. OK.
RHRM: Within the microcosm of Earthworks but also looking at your career as a whole, the evolution and sweep of your body of work is amazing, how the music never stayed in one place, how you continuously pushed yourself forward, onward and upward. Taking a look at Earthworks from the first album to the last, it became an almost completely different project.
BB: Yes. It changed a lot, didn’t it, over time. It rather depends on your self-conception of what you think you are doing in music, how you go about your daily work. I mean, I like the word “progressive” because I thought that’s what musicians were doing. I thought that’s what you paid me to do, to look around the corner and try to imagine possible futures for the drum kits and for what drummers might do and how they could do it tomorrow. So I was always more interested, I think, in what was coming up than what had been. I’m not a traditionalist in that sense. I don’t swear to a certain kind of jazz that has to be done a certain kind of way, otherwise the jazz police come and knock on your door. So I’m not a traditionalist in that sense. I’m more interested in innovation, I think. And I don’t really care whether the innovation happens in jazz or in rock, so long as something’s happening in the music that I haven’t really heard before.
RHRM: Even listening to the earlier part of your career, I always thought, being a drummer myself, that whatever style of music you were a part of, you were always playing jazz. To my ears, at least.
BB: Ha ha ha. Well, it’s possible. Yeah. I had a kind of light touch for a rock guy. And I’m one of these people that wanted to play Yes’ “Close To The Edge” differently every night. That was never going to work, really. And I can understand that other musicians find it extremely irritating.
RHRM: Ha ha. Especially within the context of a band like Yes, which I absolutely love, but there wasn’t much improvisation going on in a live setting during the band’s early days. The band mostly stuck to the structure of the compositions.
BB: Absolutely. Absolutely.
RHRM: That’s very interesting. I can imagine your wanting to break out of that, especially with your type of drumming. Your playing even on the older studio albums is not remotely similar to any other drummer. You have a completely unique style.
BB: Ha ha. Well, I didn’t try to find a different style, I think. I just tried to find a different way of playing the notes and playing them in a different order. In fact, there’s a funny thing, I think, or an interesting thing, where a lot of people say, oh, they recognize my snare drum sound. Which is great. But of course, irrespective of the fact for a minute that I played many different snare drums and everybody seems to recognize “the sound”, I think what they mean, actually, is they are intrigued by the placement of the notes. They recognize that the note is not played in the usual part of the measure. And they say, “Oh, that’s Bruford. I recognize his style.” What they mean is they recognize the placement of the note in the measure as something weird.
RHRM: It’s the placement of the note, but it’s also the snare, bass drum and hi-hat. The combination of the three when you were playing rock music was entirely different than any other drummer.
BB: Yeah. I suppose so. I suppose so. That’s true.
RHRM: To me, the true sign of real talent, what has always been important about a musician to me and that which I value as a listener regardless of the genre of music or what instrument the musician has chosen to play, is the creation and development of a distinct sound, the carving out of an original style, making a statement that has not been made before. With guitarists such as BB King, Carlos Santana and Ritchie Blackmore, one can hear who is playing the instrument with one note. The sound of your drumming has always been so distinct and immediately identifiable. You have always been one of my favorite drummers not only because of your technical prowess, but because right out of the box, going back to your early albums with Yes, your playing has always been so stylish, inventive and original. And you have carried that through into whatever style of music you have played.
BB: What you are saying is interesting. I think what you are talking about here is authorship. What’s so attractive about the slightly older records and perhaps less attractive about modern records, although it’s a different kind of authorship, is that you knew who was doing what on the record. So when you heard BB King play, you kind of imagined him standing there. You could see his face. And when he played two or three notes, you knew it was BB King and you loved it and you felt warm and tingly all inside. And if it was Cream with Eric (Clapton) and Ginger (Baker) and Jack (Bruce), you felt you knew all three. And you could identify who was doing what in the music. And it made you feel good. It’s harder, I think, these days in the electronic media of dance music and so forth to locate authorship. Other than it might be given the name of some overarching guy, you don’t really know what that guy did other than produce this entire piece of music. So in the old world and in my world, the world in which I grew up, authorship was key. Being able to have an identifiable style was key. Absolutely. Interesting, isn’t it?
RHRM: But being able to take that, to jump into several different genres of music and to retain that authorship, to retain that sound, whatever it is that you are doing, and for people always to be able to recognize that it is the same musician, that, to me, is the sign of a true musician and an artist.
BB: Well, you’re very kind. I think so. That’s what I was aiming for. Sure. I’m not unaware of that. And it’s lovely to have a traceable sonic train so that you can be identified and people say, “Oh, that must be Bill.” That’s nice. I like that. Even though you don’t really know what it was, quite. It might be jazz, it might be rock, might be some other funny combination, but I’m still in there somewhere.
RHRM: It always amazes me – many musicians and artists have this in common and it seems to have been a constant throughout your career according to your autobiography (Bill Bruford: The Autobiography) – when a person of such talent and accomplishment battles the inner demon of insecurity. At the same time, you have the confidence in your astounding abilities that has allowed you to place yourself in a position with other musical prodigies where you needed to think quickly, on your feet, and to perform while on the seat of your pants, so to speak. You are a living, breathing contradiction.
BB: Yeah. You think so, huh?
RHRM: Ha ha ha!
BB: Yes. I think a musician can externally portray confidence, skill and ease while internally he is hearing something different. He is hearing a whole series of missed opportunities going past in the music. Oh, I wouldn’t have done it that way. Look out, you idiot. You blew that. Here comes another bad thing you phrased poorly. Why don’t you do something over there? The guitar player needs some help. Etcetera, etcetera. It’s quite possible, and I think in the psychology of musicians in general, and part of this is in my book, that musicians’ interior and exterior sides do not always coalesce. You can have quite different sides, the external happy performer and the internal tormented soul.
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