Book Review: Uncharted (Creativity And The Expert Drummer) by Bill Bruford

Recently, for work, I’ve had the pleasure of hanging out a bit with Paddy Spinks, the man charged with keeping King Crimson together in the 1980s. Chatting about that mighty musical unit recently, he said that Bill Bruford had been the ‘natural showman’ of the band.

So it was a bit of a surprise to read Bruford’s words about the latter part of his distinguished drumming career in the introduction to fascinating new book ‘Uncharted’: ‘I dreaded performance to the point where…I was unable to function meaningfully. Performance had become incomprehensibly difficult and insuperably so.’

‘Uncharted’ is Bruford’s detailed voyage through the psychology of performance, performance anxiety and drumming creativity. He sets out his objectives clearly: ‘I want to suggest some answers to some fundamental questions about drummers. What do we do and why do we do it? Is there anything creative about it? What are drummers for, if not to be creative?’

He provides some answers himself and also garners opinions from a variety of respected players including Peter Erskine (Weather Report, Kate Bush, Steely Dan), Chad Wackerman (Frank Zappa, Allan Holdsworth) and Cindy Blackman-Santana.

‘Uncharted’ is most assuredly an academic book, the fruits of a University of Surrey PhD, so it probably won’t surprise any Bruford fans to learn that it features no drummer jokes. But it’s never less than gripping, with fascinating titbits dropped in here and there about a distinguished career in music.

The book shines a light on the current state of the recording world, with pithy comments about the rise of the ‘bedroom’ musician and ‘stay-at-home’ drummer sending in his/her parts via email or Skype. Bruford laments the lessening of time that bands spend together in the rehearsal room these days, often due to financial constraints, rightly commenting that music as complex and nuanced as Yes or King Crimson could only have been produced via lengthy band ‘woodshedding’ sessions.

There are striking observations on the merits or otherwise of ‘playing to your audience’, especially from Erskine: ‘I don’t really give a f**k about the audience. You can quote me on that!’, and also a couple of amusingly barbed Bruford comments about playing double drums with another of the UK’s greatest players. Hint, hint…

Despite its occasional longeurs, ‘Uncharted’ is a fascinating, forensic look at creativity and collaboration, with reverberations that go far beyond the world of music.

‘Uncharted: Creativity And The Expert Drummer’ is published by the University Of Michigan Press.

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Bill Bruford’s Earthworks: 30 Years On

earthworksEditions EG Records, released January 1987

Bought: HMV Oxford Street, 1987

8/10

Some musicians have a unique touch – you can identify them within a few notes. In Bruford’s case, his snare drum is his main audio imprint (analysed by Bill on his website). But he also always had a highly-original composing style before his retirement in 2009, and both are very much in evidence on the excellent Earthworks album.

Bruford had spent the mid-’80s winding down Crimson and duetting with ex-Yes keyboardist Patrick Moraz, mostly in spontaneous improvisation mode, but now a new musical approach was called for. He had based his career on defying expectations and he did it again in 1986, forming a quartet made up two young jazz tyros best known for their work in big-band-extraordinaire Loose Tubes (keys man Django Bates and saxist Iain Ballamy) plus acoustic bassist Mick Hutton.

bruford-inside

Bruford chose well: Bates and Ballamy were excellent and prolific composers too. Also key to this new band was Bruford’s development of a very advanced electric/acoustic kit whereby he could play chords and melodic ideas alongside a ‘standard’ jazz setup. This approach also chimed well with Bates’ propensity on both acoustic piano and synth. On the latter instrument, he was fast becoming almost as recognisable as Jan Hammer, Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea or George Duke.

All the ingredients add up to one of the key British jazz albums of the ’80s, showcasing a band equally at home playing Weather Report-style fusion, Eastern themes and odd-time prog as they were with ECM-flavoured chamber jazz of the type played by obvious heroes Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor.

Ballamy’s opener ‘Thud’ (inspired by the Rosenhan psychology experiment?) almost has a ska feel – if Madness had tried their hand at quirky instrumental jazz/rock, they might come up with something like this. ‘Pressure’ is possibly the album’s standout, a superb mini-suite featuring some classic odd-time Bruford mischief and lyrical piano playing from Bates.

Ballamy’s ballad ‘It Needn’t End In Tears’ still sounds like a jazz-standard-in-waiting to this writer, though its possibly a bit saccharine for some. Bruford unleashes a fine drum solo on ‘My Heart Declares a Holiday’ while Bates’ ‘Emotional Shirt’ veers humourously between an early hip-hop groove and free-jazz freakout. ‘Bridge Of Inhibition’ ingeniously fuses Turkish modes with high-speed bebop.

Buoyed by state-of-the-art production (maybe a bit too state-of-the-art for some) and stylish packaging, Earthworks was a palpable hit by ‘jazz’ standards, selling well and turning up in several ‘best of 1987’ lists. Some critics were of course suspicious of Bruford’s jazz credentials, but he probably couldn’t have cared less; he had always considered himself a jazz drummer anyway and knew he was onto a winner with Bates, Ballamy and Hutton.

The latter wouldn’t last beyond this first album, but Earthworks (the band) would continue to make some excellent music throughout the rest of the ’80s and for two decades beyond that. Bruford had successfully defied expectations yet again.

RIP Chris Squire (Take Three)

chris sIt’s the beautifully-written piece you’d hope to read from a newly-awarded professor of music, but I thought it well worth quoting Bill Bruford’s tribute to Chris Squire in full (with apologies for tardiness), which I believe first appeared on the Yes website.

‘Really saddened to hear of the death of my old Yes band-mate, Chris Squire. I shall remember him fondly; one of the twin rocks upon which Yes was founded and, I believe, the only member to have been present and correct, Rickenbacker at the ready, on every tour. He and I had a working relationship built around our differences. Despite, or perhaps because of, the old chestnut about creative tension, it seemed, strangely, to work.

He had an approach that contrasted sharply with the somewhat monotonic, immobile bass parts of today. His lines were important; counter-melodic structural components that you were as likely to go away humming as the top line melody; little stand-alone works of art in themselves. Whenever I think of him, which is not infrequently, I think of the over-driven fuzz of the sinewy staccato hits in ‘Close to the Edge’ (6’04” and on) or a couple of minutes later where he sounds like a tuba (8’.00”). While he may have taken a while to arrive at the finished article, it was always worth waiting for.  And then he would sing a different part on top.

An individualist in an age when it was possible to establish individuality, Chris fearlessly staked out a whole protectorate of bass playing in which he was lord and master. I suspect he knew not only that he gave millions of people pleasure with his music, but also that he was fortunate to be able to do so. I offer sincere condolences to his family.

Adios, partner. Bill.’

 

Story Of A Song: Bill Bruford’s Palewell Park

The 1980s were a pretty good time to be a songwriting drummer; Sheila E, Phil Collins and Don Henley all flourished, and probably a few more too.

Not that master Yes/King Crimson sticksman Bill Bruford had any particular desire to match their commercial standing as the decade got underway. He was quite happy gaining harmonic knowledge (with the assistance of keyboardist Dave Stewart), making sizeable contributions to the percussion community and composing incredible pieces of music like ‘Palewell Park’.

In a way, it was the culmination of his work with the Bruford group which had released three studio albums between 1978 and 1980, two featuring the brilliant Allan Holdsworth on guitar.

Palewell Park, East Sheen, London

Palewell Park, East Sheen, London

This track has a special resonance for me as Palewell Park was a childhood hangout, site of many great cricket, tennis and football games as well as a fair few teenage hijinks. Bruford apparently lived nearby during the piece’s recording at Surrey Sound in Leatherhead (also the studio The Police used for their first two albums) and wanted to write a little ode to the area.

Someone on YouTube very aptly described ‘Palewell Park’ as ‘a contemporary piece for piano and bass’. It doesn’t fit comfortably into any genre, but it’s a pretty remarkable composition coming from the pen of a ‘drummer’, and one who doesn’t even feature on his own composition (Stewart played the piano)!

Jeff Berlin, Jon Clark, Dave Stewart, Bill Bruford in 1980

Jeff Berlin, Jon Clark, Dave Stewart, Bill Bruford in 1980

The 26-year-old Jeff Berlin lays down one of the great pieces of post-Jaco bass playing. With just a touch of chorus pedal, he sticks to the pretty treacherous melody in the first half and then stretches out to play a fantastic solo over the changes, a total lesson in melody construction, with no gimmicks.

I wish I could unreservedly recommend the rest of the Gradually Going Tornado album – there are certainly a few other corkers but in general Berlin’s vocals are a bit of a hinderance.

Next up for Bill was a reunion with Robert Fripp and one of the great albums of the ’80s, King Crimson’s Discipline, which we’ll return to soon.