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.

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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.

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Big Band Revolutionaries: 30 Years Of Loose Tubes

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A small segment of Loose Tubes, 1985

Anyone who got into jazz in the 1980s must surely have a soft spot for the legendary anarcho-big band Loose Tubes.

I saw them play live sometime around 1986 in one of those great community-run London venues (Logan Hall? Shaw Theatre? Camden Arts Centre?) that appeared quickly, burnt brightly and then disappeared. I don’t recall much about the music but do remember the crowd; the jazz revival was in full flight so there were lots of very hip people wearing chinos, black polo-necks and sometimes even berets dancing unashamedly.

Then, a bit later, Loose Tubes played on Saturday-evening primetime TV wearing very loud clothes, dancing idiotically and generally clowning around with the audience. It was youthful and different and gave Big Band Jazz a much-needed makeover. Of course there’s always the chance that some people just didn’t think of their music as ‘jazz’ at all, and their clowning may well have put a lot of potential punters off. But the band probably weren’t too bothered about that.

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In a way, the Loose Tubes could only have originated in the ’80s, emerging as it did from composer and educator Graham Collier‘s community big band workshops. There was no ‘leader’ per se (although keyboards/French horn man Django Bates was occasionally seen conducting in very syncopated sections) and any member of the band was free to submit compositions. Consequently, Loose Tubes’ music touched on anything that took its composers’ fancy – samba, heavy metal, folk, Weather Report-style fusion, flamenco, Hi-Life, blues, reggae, free jazz.

Their first self-titled album came out in the summer of 1985 and it was a really nice distillation of their sound (and featured one of my favourite UK drummers, Nic France, who left soon after the recording to join Working Week). Django Bates’ composition ‘Yellow Field’ remains a classic. The followup Delightful Precipice is probably their best known album, and the final studio recording was 1988’s Teo Macero-produced Open Letter.

It was probably a miracle that such a huge band lasted as long as it did (six years) but Loose Tubes was also a superb career springboard for Bates, saxophonists Iain Ballamy, Julian Arguelles and Tim Whitehead, guitarist John Parricelli, flautist Eddie Parker, drummers Nic France/Steve Arguelles and ‘bone man Ashley Slater, all of whom are going strong today.

And guess what – they reformed in 2014, playing concerts at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Brecon Jazz Festival and a sold-out week at London’s Ronnie Scott’s. Two live album have also recently been released, Sad Afrika and Dancing On Frith Street, both of which featured music from their original farewell gig at Ronnie’s in September 1990.

Check out lots more about Loose Tubes and the ’80s UK jazz revival in this excellent BBC doc: