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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Frank Zappa’s Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch: 35 Years Old Today

Barking Pumpkin Records, released 3rd May 1982

Bought: Virgin Megastore, Oxford Street, 1988?

6/10

This is the first Zappa album I ever bought. It was a cheapo Fame Records/EMI cassette edition. Before Ship, I had only heard choice cuts courtesy of a friend’s career-spanning compilation. I was going to say that Ship was not the ideal album to start with, but actually with hindsight it probably was; it’s maddening, brilliant, tawdry, overblown – basically a microcosm of Zappa’s ’80s output.

Ship ditched the lush, multi-tracked sound of 1981’s You Are What You Is in favour of a no-reverb, claustrophobic mix featuring Chad Wackerman’s busy drums, blaring synths, in-your-face bass and loads of wacky guitar processing.

Opening track ‘No Not Now’, concerning the sexual dilemmas of a long-distance truck driver, is a six-minute disaster area that would surely test the patience of even the most diehard Zappa fan. ‘Valley Girl’ placed killer new-wave rock around daughter Moon’s hilarious vocal exclamations. It was a typically bold, spontaneous and very successful career move by FZ resulting in a timely hit single (peaking at #32 in the US).

But we then unfortunately segue into ‘I Come From Nowhere’, a fairly unlistenable track about the inanity of TV personalities with a ghastly vocal performance by Roy Estrada over an uninvolving, sub-Men At Work riff.

But side two of Ship demonstrates all that’s essential about ’80s Zappa. It should really be heard in its totality. The title track is surely one of his career highlights, a unique, surrealistic 12-minute salvo featuring spoken-word, ‘scatting’, a great rock guitar solo over a grinding 9/8 vamp, a blizzard of avant-garde piano/percussion and even a quote from Stravinsky’s ‘Rite Of Spring’ (of course also a piece about ritual sacrifice).

‘Envelopes’ is a brief but brilliant through-composed tribute to Conlon Nancarrow featuring close-interval, player-piano perversions, while ‘Teenage Prostitute’ is the R-rated version of ‘Valley Girl’, a hellish vision of Hollywood’s underbelly complete with ‘Peter Gunn’ riffs, intricate marimba and operatic vocals by Lisa Popeil.

I was in. I would immediately go back/forward and investigate FZ’s career in more detail. Next up was Sheik Yerbouti, the first CD I ever bought and probably my favourite Zappa album.

Technology Catches Up With Technique: Allan Holdsworth’s Secrets

Allan_Holdsworth_-_1989_-_SecretsIntima Records, released May 1989

Bought: Our Price Richmond, 1989

8/10

Some time around the late ’80s, I became a bit disillusioned with the major UK music mags (but continued to love Q). Their infinite search for ‘coolness’ coincided with my increasing interest in playing bass and guitar, so I started checking out American mags such as Musician, Guitar World and Guitar Player, as well as Guitarist here in the UK. Their focus seemed to be on the mechanics of/intentions behind making music rather than puking in hotels or haircuts.

I think I first heard guitarist Allan Holdsworth’s name via a Guitar Player cover interview to promote his Secrets album. I hadn’t yet heard a note of his music but his intelligent, exceptionally modest (some would say mordant) approach to playing drew me in, as did his endorsement of sax players (Brecker, Coltrane, Parker) rather than the usual guitar influences. Also he mentioned that he had been working with drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, another name that I had heard with relation to Frank Zappa but had never really properly investigated.

By chance, I came upon Secrets a few months later in a bargain bucket. £5.99, if I remember rightly. From the first bar of the opener ‘City Nights’ (a typically nimble salvo around the kit by Vinnie) I was blown away. Holdsworth’s solo is burning, with loads of notes spraying out everywhere, but it’s also totally devoid of clichés. He repeats the trick all over Secrets, with Vinnie and bassist Jimmy Johnson prodding and cajoling him every step of the way.

It’s also refreshing to hear Allan blowing over lots of major chords in ‘Joshua’, the sort of tune which might be a bit soppy in the hands of Metheny or Abercrombie but is transformed into a stunningly fluent series of solos alongside Colaiuta’s brilliantly unhinged accompaniment. ‘Spokes‘ is a nicely arranged vehicle for Allan’s nutty synthaxe playing (and some more Vinnie/Jimmy genius) and, on ‘Endomorph‘, Holdsworth even comes up with a very moving song inspired by the death of his father with some excellent vocals from Craig Copeland.

Though his playing was always brilliant, Allan’s investigations with various types of guitar synthesis had lent some of his improvisations a ‘cheesiness’ earlier in the ’80s leading to a few less-than-essential albums (with the possible exception of  ’85’s Metal Fatigue). This is not to say that his other albums aren’t worth checking out, but I’d go back to his work with Bill Bruford and Tony Williams in the ’70s rather than earlier ’80s collections.

But Secrets is the one where technology really caught up with his ingenious concepts. All lead guitarists are on an endless search for tone and Allan seems to have found his ideal one here. It’s smooth yet fiery and he genuinely achieves the ‘sheets-of-sound’ style of improvising that he so admires in his favourite sax players by utilising incredibly wide intervals (for a guitarist) and legato phrasing.

His playing is as instantly recognisable as Wes, Van Halen or Scofield’s. It’s not easy music, though. But, as he lamented in the interview mentioned above, it’s not that difficult and he always wished it was more popular.

Vinnie Colaiuta

Vinnie Colaiuta

Secrets was the first in a trio of superb solo albums (and some sterling sideman work with Chad Wackerman) which continued with Wardenclyffe Tower in ’92 and Hard Hat Area in ’94, all of which are pretty essential listening if you like his vibe.

Within a year of Secrets coming out, I’d seen Allan live whilst at university in London and also checked out his month-long guest spot with Level 42 at Hammersmith Odeon throughout December 1990 (and some brilliant solos on their Guaranteed album). I was becoming a major fan and have been ever since. I’m glad he seems to have got over a bout of illness a year or so ago and is busy on the touring front again. Long may he run.