Debashish Bhattacharya: The Sound of the Soul
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Mention the name Bill Bruford to nearly any Prog-Rock, Fusion or Contemporary Jazz aficionado, let alone most drummers, and what you’ll likely encounter is sense of veneration bordering upon reverence. For nearly four decades, Bill Bruford has been coursing his own way in modern music, across a host of varying genres, all the while forwarding his one-of-a- kind approach in each. Both as a drummer and composer of unprecedented talent. Arguably, his curriculum vitae is among the most impressive in the business.
Since most visitors to this website, I’d venture, are either somewhat or very familiar with Bruford’s celebrated career, I’ll eschew a detailed summation at this juncture. One may visit http://www.billbruford.co.uk/bill/bio.html to obtain a synopsis of this drummer’s drummer’s professional milestones.
For the sake of those who may be totally unfamiliar with his (Earth) works, Bill Bruford has consistently played with some of the most proficient, creative ensembles and musicians throughout the world. Among them: Yes, King Crimson, UK, Genesis, Bruford, Gong, Earthworks, and Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe. He has also recorded and / or toured with Patrick Moraz, Kazumi Watanabe, David Torn, Ralph Towner, Eddie Gomez, The New Percussion Group of Amsterdam, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Akira Inoue, Al di Meola, the Buddy Rich Orchestra, Tony Levin, Pete Lockett and others. In 1990, the readers of Modern Drummer Magazine voted him into that publication’s esteemed Hall of Fame.
I had the privilege of speaking with Bill Bruford over the telephone for nearly an hour in mid-October. Having previously interviewed literally hundreds of music luminaries over the years, for me, this was a dream come true. And true to form, Mr. Bruford was highly articulate, thoughtful, opinionated, and candid. Following is our conversation in its entirety.
AL: First of all, I must tell you that for three decades now, you’ve long been one of my very favorite and most respected musicians. So it’s quite an honor for me to speak with you. Thanks, again, for your time.
BB: Not at all. Not at all. Just trying to do an honest day’s work. Is the tape recorder running okay?
AL: Yes, it’s running fine.
BB: Okay, perfect.
AL: Describe for me your compositional process. Do you use the piano’ Mallet instruments’ The guitar?
BB: The piano is kind of my second instrument.
AL: Did you study piano formally or did you start playing it more once you began composing more frequently?
BB: Both of those. I didn’t write any music at all, and then, I remember Jon Anderson being very insistent saying that there were two kinds of musicians: the ones who wrote music and the ones who didn’t. And clearly the ones who wrote music were more superior human beings in his mind. So he kind of nudged me and sort of prodded me into it. I picked it up slowly. Then I learned more about chords and harmony and I just kept adding to that. One of the great things about having good players in your band is that you just ask them questions. You can pick up some good information that way.
AL: You’ve certainly had some good teachers over the years.
BB: If you keep your ears open and you listen a lot. And if you can have Django Bates or Steve Hamilton correct some of your work and it can sound good, you know. It’ll work out okay.
AL: Some of the melodic lines you’ve written are fairly tricky and are relatively fast. Are you able to execute those on the piano real time?
BB: If it’s fast, no I don’t have enough piano technique. In that case, it’s probably been done on some kind of synthesizer or sequencer. Then the score can then be printed out and so forth.
AL: I’m thinking, for instance, of the melody line in Sample and Hold [Bill Bruford – “Feels Good to Me”]. That was at a fairly rapid clip.
BB: Yeah, I was able to play that on vibraphone or with mallets or something. But no, I think I probably would’ve written that [on piano] slower.
AL: If I’m understanding correctly, when you were first playing with Yes, you didn’t read that well but later on became more proficient at it.
BB: Yeah… But I wouldn’t say I’m a great sight-reader because sight-reading for drums is a fine art. It’s mostly in the jazz world; I grew up with rock and nobody needed to read music in that genre. So to this day I’m a slowish reader because I never had to do it. Had I had to do it, I would have got it more organized.
AL: In other words, had you studied classical percussion.
BB: I did do a little bit there and I was taught to sight-read rhythms as a kid. But the vertical movement on the stave, no. Just the horizontal.
AL: In terms of reading actual notes and pitches, that was a skill you gained later, correct ?
BB: Yes, but I don’t sight-read mallet parts, for example. They’re much easier to write than to read.
AL: Was Five Percent for Nothing [Yes – “Fragile”] the first piece you ever wrote?
BB: Actually I think it was, probably. And that was recorded. So I was lucky to have had things that I wrote in the early stage to be put on record.
AL: Did you contribute compositionally to other ideas with Yes? For example, I remember listening to Close to the Edge and thinking, Bill Bruford probably wrote that part.
BB: Yeah, there were snippets in there. As I said, Jon Anderson pushed me into doing bits and pieces. So I would come up with odd movements of the bass or…
AL: Oh, so you wrote some of the melodic parts as well, not just rhythmic figures?
BB: Yes. Bits and pieces. Riffs mostly. I heard the music from the bottom up: a bass line that could be doubled with the guitar, which would turn into some kind of riff or lead part.
AL: I’ m a bassist, so I know what you mean by writing from the bottom up.
BB: There you go. So bits of Heart of the Sunrise, [Yes – “Fragile”] parts of Close to the Edge. [Yes – “Close to the Edge”]
AL: Did you write any of Siberian Khatru[Yes – “Close to the Edge”]? That’s probably one of my all-time favorite Yes songs.
BB: A little bit. Yeah, I like that tune, too.
AL: Okay, moving on. You made a comment on the Earthworks DVD [Earthworks – “Footloose in NYC”] that these days you consider yourself to be more of a composer than a drummer. What else have you been doing to hone that craft?
BB: Did I say that?
AL: Pretty much…
BB: I think… I think… That sounds a little strange, there being some other context to that. But what I think my emphasis is, is on the fact that I like music a lot. And I like messing around in the engine room of music. Seeing what happens in the rhythm section area. Then, on a scale going down, I like drumming quite a bit and I like drums least of all. Do you see what I mean ‘ It’s the music. I’m primarily interested in and the interaction of the people.
AL: That’s always been evident in your career. One of the reasons I’ve long admired you, quite frankly, is your ability to evolve musically and push your own envelope. Not always from just a technique standpoint, although that’s certainly part of it. But it’s more of a holistic approach.
BB: Yeah, it’s kind of, What should I be doing next? What should we drummers be doing next? Those kinds of questions. What would be a good place for a drummer to look at here? You know, those kinds of things. Ah, here’s an electronic drum. Shall we try those Well, every body does it that way; how about we do it this way? Etcetera. Those kinds of things intrigue me. Kept me interested, I think.
AL: Speaking of drummers and percussionists, over the course of your career you’ve worked with several: Jamie Muir, Phil Collins, Pierre Moerlen, Peter Lockett… What are some of the specific things you’ve learned from any of them?
BB: Whoa…[Sighs] It’s hard, of course. You learn so much about music from all the people you surround yourself with – good, bad and indifferent. It’s extremely hard to be specific. Working with another drummer is great fun because you immediately have a rhythmic counterpoint or counterfoil. And I think the best stuff I did with that in a way was with Pat Mastelotto around King Crimson’s Thrak. And also this guy Pete Lockett is a bit of genius over here. He’s a terrific player.
AL: Yes, he sent me some of his CDs. I’ve been enjoying them very much.
BB: Did you get the first “Network of Sparks” with me on it?
AL: Of course! That’s why I actually purchased that particular album.
BB: Yeah, it’s a great record. He’s a terrific drummer. However, you can investigate rhythm ad nauseum. So nothing specific from the drummers, I don’t think. Other than a great sense of, Well, if you’re going to that, I can do this. And if you do that, that’ll free me to do this. Or if I hold this down this, that’ll free you to do that, you know. So just from working with different people… I find a great pleasure when somebody finds their role in the music and suddenly it all becomes easy.
AL: It seems to me, that when you joined forces with King Crimson the first time around, and were able to work briefly with Jamie Muir, he opened you up in terms of your sonic vocabulary. Either that or when you were with Yes it was somewhat more restrictive, congas with a wah-wah pedal notwithstanding.
BB: Oh that’s very true! I had no idea. I just thought really, that drums were drums and cymbals were cymbals. So a couple of drums and a couple of cymbals and that was the end of your responsibility in terms of tone and timbre and texture, you know. So I didn’t realize there was anything other than that really until meeting Jamie Muir, who could make rhythmic sounds out of all kinds of things.
AL: Even cat’s whiskers or jello…
BB: [Laughs] So it was all part of a huge learning curve.
AL: As I said, having followed your career for all this time; when you joined Crimson it was like, Listen to that! Bruford’s textural palette has really increased!
BB: Yeah, the little gongs, cymbals, steel plates, ratchets and what not.
AL: Speaking of which, how do you make that kind of screechy sound on the steel plate?
BB: Oh, you can just drag drumsticks lightly around things, or bits of styrene or glass.
AL: And that makes that spooky screeeee sort of sound?
BB: [Laughs] All that and more, actually.
AL: Let’s see… I’ve some more questions about Yes, if that’s okay. I heard that at one point, you were so frustrated with Chris Squire that you actually punched him’? What was that all about?
BB: Well, I don’t really remember it. But it was very… I mean, Chris is, I’m sure, a wonderful guy. But in those days he also very, very late. [Pause] For all appointments and departures and arrivals and sound checks and anything.
AL: That’s not very responsible.
BB: That, in a way, is the most grievous form of offense that one musician can visit upon another. Because it’s simply keeping everybody waiting. Like the last guy who enters the room is the biggest guy. So there was a lot of that about him and eventually… you know, I was a hot-blooded guy back then and I’d had enough of waiting for him, really.
AL: I understand you once had to wait hours for him to find the right tone for his bass before rehearsing. You’d taken a nap or something and when you woke up, he was still fiddling with it.
BB: He used to keep Yes waiting for almost everything. And I would guess they are still waiting for everything.
AL: You did go back and work with him with “Fish Out of Water”, had you and he made amends?
BB: I can’t really remember what happened. I’d left Yes in ’72; I guess that record was two or three years later… He called me for that and I said yeah, as long as he wasn’t going to keep me waiting. If I had to go to his studio, that sounded all right to me.
AL: Did you work live with Patrick Moraz for that album, or did he later overdub his keyboard parts?
BB: I can’t remember, I think Patrick was there, probably. Most music was live in those days. But often there would be replaced parts by other musicians. And drummers used to get irritated by this. We drummers had to be perfect on the first go. On the supposition, a number of musical additions would be made. And then, of course, they would replace everything and change everything. So where you had thought there was going to be acoustic guitar then turned out to be symphony orchestra. So of course, many times you ended up sounding silly.
AL: Yes, that could be counterproductive if you thought they were going to play x, then you’d play y. But when that didn’t happen…
BB: Yeah, exactly. Trying to predict months in advance what the final product was going to be like, which is very difficult at times.
AL: Years later, you ended up working with Chris and other members of Yes on the Union tour. What was that like?
BB: Well, the Union tour was pretty horrible, really. I mean it was just a sort of a summer vacation. It was um… fun to do in the sense there were some old pals and it was possible to do because we didn’t have to give rise to any new music. So in as much as the band was just playing repertoire material, there was kind of a ticket buy in the idea of all those, you know, the entire cast of Dallas on stage at once, kind of thing. And there was some ticket buy kind of attraction to that. But that was really all it was, I think. And I think I was probably an unnecessary spare part. So I didn’t enjoy it terribly. But those gigs can be quite fun as performing in huge stadiums can be quite fun on a kind of purely visceral level. Just kind of being there and enjoying it. I don’t venture, however, you’d want to give up your day job to do it.
AL: Did you enjoy drumming with Alan White?
BB: A little… a little. I mean Alan did what he did and I tried to fit in around him somewhere, but very difficult.
AL: I was curious because there was very cool duet that you two did in 7/4 and I remember thinking, Bill Bruford probably wrote that.
BB: That’s possible… Me and Alan was it? Yeah, that’s quite possible. Yeah, I always felt quite comfortable in odd meters, as a matter of fact. I could always find something to do in seven or five or nine or something rather than 4/4, which I found harder to play in.
AL: I agree. You taught me well, Sir. I love odd meters. What was it like to play on some the Yes material you hadn’t performed on before? I’m thinking in particular of songs like ‘Awaken’. Parts of it are in 11/8.
BB: I enjoy absorbing new material. I wasn’t there of course, when the thing was given birth to. So I came to it kind of fresh. This is the way it goes and you just take it on board for what it is and try to bring the music to life as much as possible. And I like that and I like having to absorb new information fairly quickly. So it was quite fun, yes, and I thought Trevor Rabin’s kind of rock songs were pretty good. They may not have been Yes material, but I’d long since given up caring about that kind of thing.
AL: Let’s go back to Peter Lockett’s Network of Sparks project for a moment. I’ve long been a fan of Indian Classical music and some of the East/West fusion projects that have been happening over the years. So hearing you play with tablas for the first time was a great experience. Bill Bruford and tablas ? I’m in heaven! What was it like for you and what did you learn from that experience?
BB: [Laughs] Difficult. Difficult. You’re eyes are open very quickly to the complexities of Indian music, and the way that classical system of rhythm is deeply engrained in India. Peter is something of a leading authority here in the UK. He’s one of the few Caucasian musicians who’s kind of invited to India regularly to play with some of their best tabla players.
AL: Oh, I didn’t know that.
BB: He also knows quite a bit about drum set, too.
AL: It’s time I interviewed him as well.
BB: Tabla and drums do work together. But it’s a peculiar… the origin of the two is so disparate, the Western drum kit coming up through the military, dance and jazz music. Versus the long, established classical Indian rhythmic system, makes for a strange combination of percussionists. I loved doing it. I wasn’t sure about the outcome at all – whether I’d particularly like it or not – but that doesn’t bother me, either. Whether or not I particularly like something doesn’t bother me.
AL: How do you think it came out in hindsight?
BB: Well. Very well. And beautifully recorded, I think. Although I don’t know the appeal, necessarily, of all-percussion records to people. Maybe they only sell to other percussionists, I guess. But it was certainly great fun doing it.
AL: I know Indian rhythm utilizes, as you do quite frequently, odd and compound meters. Were you able to take any of rhythmic theory of playing talas and incorporate it into your own playing?
BB: Somewhat. Yeah, people explained quite a bit to me. But I think Steve Smith has probably gone further than I have. And he’s hanging out with Zakir Hussain a lot. So I think as a Western rock / jazz guy he’s probably further down that road than I am. I haven’t pursued it much more since working with Pete.
AL: But that would be an interesting genre to explore further.
BB: Yeah, it would be.
AL: For instance, there are a couple of Indian musicians who are playing both Indian percussion and drum set. Of course, there’s Trilok Gurtu and there’s another guy, who’s yet to make a name for himself among Western drummers… Have you heard of Shivamani?
BB: Mmmm no; that’s not a name I’m familiar with.
AL: He’s played with John McLaughlin’s Remember Shakti project, particularly on their last album.
BB: Oh yeah. And he’s a drum set player, is he ?
AL: He can play drum kit as well as indigenous Indian percussion instruments.
BB: Great, great.
AL: And there’s a Spanish guy, too. Have you heard of Tino di Geraldo?
AL: I’m going to have to make a list for you.
BB: You know all the guys here. I listen less these days. I’m obviously not as good a listener as you are. I find just staying abreast of current developments quite time-consuming more often than not. After days of answering emails, somehow listening to more new material, I find to be quite hard work. But this has partly to due with the fact there’s so much music around. I’m tiring with it maybe. But perhaps you have an endless thirst.
AL: Yeah, I guess it goes with being both a music journalist and musician; to always be open. I’m perpetually searching for that next great thing that’ll jettison me to new level of musical insight or understanding.
BB: Yeah, sure. Sure. However, I find these days that my thirst is easily quenchable.
AL: Was that always so?
BB: No. Increasingly it is the case. It’s because my piano groans with unsolicited material of some sort or another. It’s because every body wants an opinion on some thing or another, usually their latest efforts, of course. It’s because the sheer exhaustion involved in trying to sell this commodity of music to any body, which requires so much time and energy now.
AL: Particularly with your new labels, SummerFold and WinterFold?
BB: With any labels, absolutely. With the two new labels I’ve created, sure. And at the end of the day, I tend to think, Enough already, as it were.
AL: So what do you do when you’re not doing music?
BB: Oh, God!
AL: Do you have any particular hobbies, extracurricular interests?
BB: Well… are you a father?
AL: No, I’m not.
BB: Okay. Well, let me tell you about children: They take time.
AL: How old are your children now?
BB: Well, I have three children. You’d think they’re grown up and therefore you’d think they must take less time, but not really. It’s amazing. We’re quite a close family. I have a 27-year old, 25 and 17.
AL: Was it tough for them when you were off and about, traversing the world on tour?
BB: Not at all. Nope. Kids don’t mind it as long as fathers come back when they say they’ll come back. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been gone for, just so long as you come back the day you say you will.
AL: They’re not all living at home now, I presume.
BB: No, only one is, the 17-year old. I also have two acres of English country garden here, which needs a lot of maintenance.
AL: And you take care of that yourself?
BB: Uh, huh. And I like to read a book once in a while. So I have no problem doing things outside of music at all. The problem, I think, these days for us guys is the 24-hour global shop.
AL: Because somebody’s always awake and wanting you to do something for them?
BB: Er… yes, and there’s always the feeling that you should really either be practicing or you should really be selling a CD to somebody in Bangkok. Or answering emails.
AL: And they say email is supposed to save time… Yeah. Right.
BB: Oh, you’re kidding me! I mean the workload has quintupled since the computer arrived on my desk. And, you know, it’s the same for everyone. No complaints, mind you. But it means that my desire to get excited about music is less edgy than it was.
AL: Well, maybe with your permission, I could find a few gems that would ignite some interest.
BB: Oh, I probably have plenty I could find that would ignite… it’s all sitting on my piano. I just don’t think I need any more music. But this is also a message that the Western world is giving out with its pop, you know. It’s saying, Look. Stop. We already have all the songs we possibly could ever have. I feel that quite strongly in a way. Every record company slams every door that’s ever possible. Clearly, any musician gets the idea from them that, We don’t really want any more music.
AL: Or maybe they don’t want your music.
BB: Er… Maybe.
AL: Please don’t misconstrue that as a negative comment about your music, Bill. Because if I was a label I’d be beating a path to your door knocking. But particularly here in America, it’s a very depressing scene in the commercial music industry: Barbie-like pop stars, misogynic rap, rehashed classic rock or alternative rockers, who, while many think they’re doing something new, are just rehashing with more angst what was done before. There’s rarely any room for a mature musician / artist.
BB: That’s right. That’s right. And that’s no different in the West, in general, I think. And to make some headway in that, you do need the most phenomenal stamina. Even assuming you’re a good musician. And we have that, and there are plenty of them. And of those, a very small percentage will have something interesting to say. Okay, that reduces it quite a bit. And of those who are good musicians who have something to say, who also have to have the required stamina to bring that… musical endeavor to the public consciousness, it’s something. It’s something. To rise to the top, the guys who rightly rise to the top, who deserve to be there, are the strongest guys.
AL: There are only a few handfuls at the most; which is really a very small percentage, all in all.
BB: Yeah. That’s right. And many of the guys at the top today are older guys, because they were able to get a footing when it was a more tolerable kind of world.
AL: And less commercially driven.
BB: For example, Joe Zawinul is a top guy, but he started so long ago…
AL: He was making a mark back in the ’60s.
BB: Exactly. But to rise to the surface now is very difficult. So my heart goes out to the younger players.
AL: Although, some of the younger musicians have been able to jump aboard the smooth jazz bandwagon that’s being promulgated in the marketplace and airwaves these days.
AL: I don’t know if it’s as popular on that side of the Atlantic as it is here, but it’s become one of the few viable markets for contemporary jazz artists these days.
BB: No, it’s not as popular in Great Britain nor is it as popular in Europe in general. Jazz has now become a female singer, by definition. Any instrumentalist is kind of out of the water right now.
AL: My, we’ve come so far…
BB: Yeah, kind of full circle, really. And I have to, on a daily basis, interface with that kind of industry. And it is… very tiring. As I said, no complaints. But I shall tell you that it’s tiring, as I’m sure you’d understand.
AL: Doesn’t the Internet give you the ability to reach your specific niche, which you perhaps weren’t able to do so before’ Now you can direct sell to any one interested in obtaining your music. Right online.
BB: Hmmmm… Er, yes… There’s something… to that, and that… can be nice. I mean it sounds as if I’m hesitant… But that’s great. Of course, the much vaunted kind of interfacing with the audience is again, very time consuming.
AL: You must have a staff that takes care of orders, etc.
BB: Yes, in terms of orders. Yes. That’s okay. But … the relationship between the consumer, if you like, or listener and the artist now is that the artist just doesn’t produce the music. The artist is now required to do a whole aftercare service, of What kind of drum sticks do you use? And How do you play the drums? And the rest of it, down to email. So to a degree, the contract now is, Well, I bought your CD, but now I’d like to tell you my life story. And that’s very difficult. So a certain distance, if we’re going to get any work done here at all, a certain distance has to be maintained between the artist, whoever that may be, or in my case, me… and the endless amount of signing and questions and so forth that come with the territory these days.
AL: You need time and space to be creative.
BB: Again, I don’t wish to sound complaining in the slightest and you must ensure it doesn’t sound complaining. A lot of people misunderstand, I think, how musicians go about things, why they go about things, why they even… you know, how people get the music they do get.
AL: And that methodology is certainly changing, too. Let’s move on a bit… I spoke with a drummer acquaintance of mine, Shlomo Deshet, who heads up a very cool world jazz group in Israel called ESTA. He asked me to ask you about your creative process. In terms of composing, how does that work for you’ For some it flows naturally, others have to painstakingly ponder every note…
BB: Oh, I’m pretty regular, I would think. It’s about 3% spark of inspiration and about 97% perspiration, in bringing it to reality. I find it very hard work because you feel you’ve heard everything before. If not from somebody else than from yourself. And I write really only as an excuse to get other guys in a room and get them playing. You know, all I want to do really is to get them playing. But to fill a room full of musicians and… The way to start it is to fill a room full of musicians and for that, you’re really obliged to have something for them to play. So mine is only an excuse. My writing or, so called compositions are only an excuse to get people going. To hear the sound of a band, to be in the middle of a band that’s playing the kind of music I like. So that’s lovely. And if you can do it, if you can control that, it’s great. In the course of which, you can device rhythmic scenarios and audio scenarios in which you flourish and shine and which sound good. And hope the other people will sound good, too. So that’s why I do it. It’s certainly not because I have some vision of how music should go in any particular way.
AL: Really’ Now that comes as a surprise. I always thought you did.
BB: Well, I have a sense of what could be interesting to do on a drum kit. And then I try and provide other guys around or invite other people in on that particular pleasure with me. But to do that I need some kind of a framework or composition.
AL: I think some of your melodic and harmonic ideas are very sound as well, and show a lot of creativity on your part. They’re not just embellishments, if you will, for your rhythmic ideas. Many others, I know would and have already agreed. Downbeat magazine has repeatedly hailed your compositions as well as your drumming. Other publications have also.
BB: Yeah, that’s true. That’s true. And hopefully it’s all about something. I think to try to have – and I think all musicians need to have these days — before they embark upon this exhaustive process of making a CD. Well, the process of making a CD may be a breeze but the bit that comes after it is going to exhaust you, whatever way you look at it. Before they embark on this, they need to have a pretty fair sense of what their CD is about. If there is one thing that I get too often, they are CDs from young musicians that cover all the basses, you know. The worse of them is the one with, Here’s the reggae track. Here’s the kind of funk thing. There’s a bit of a rap thing. And now we’ll do a jazz / fusiony thing followed by a ballad.
AL: I once had to write a review of an album like that. They were good players, mind you, and they could emulate those styles to a T, but they hadn’t yet discovered what it was that made them tick as a unit.
BB: Right. That’s a classic case. Of all the misunderstandings that young musicians have when they start making these CDs… We don’t want a resume of all the things they can do. We want a CD about something. About a particular viewpoint. That jazz should go this way, or that rock music should go that way, or that rap should be done like this. Whatever. But it has a viewpoint. And various pieces of music should only be included on the CD in as far as they sharpen that viewpoint.
AL: That are an integral expression of it.
BB: Yeah. In as much as they dissipate from it or leak energy from it, than it’s a no go area. Typically, I get a lot of CDs with music kind of sprayed all over it, hence nobody really knows what it’s about at all.
AL: People send you these CDs for possible review, feedback or production?
BB: [Sighs] Oh yeah, all that. For some reason, people seem to think that I need CDs. But in reality I’m actually the last guy who needs them. So as a footnote to your article, please say no further unsolicited material, please. [Laughs]
AL: Attention Readers: Don’t send Bill Bruford any more CDs. Thank you.
BB: Yeah, it’s not fair… And that little phrase that people say so often, Just give this a listen and let me know what you think. That’s a three-hour round trip right there.
AL: Yes, it can be.
BB: Because you need to listen to it a couple of times, and then consider it, and then write something. And that’s not easy.
AL: Welcome to my world, Bill.
BB: Yeah. Maybe you get paid for it.
AL: It depends for whom I’m writing the review.
BB: [Laughs] Although I definitely don’t.
AL: I must say, that within the past four to five years, I’ve been fortunate to discover a some great world/jazz fusion out there, for lack of any other designation. And if you know where to look, or you’ve been fortunate enough to have something serendipitously fall in your lap, there’s some wonderful music out there. Really incredible.
BB: I agree! Some absolutely great stuff. A lot of it is in Europe, too.
AL: Exactly. Paris is a real hot bed for it right now.
BB: Yeah, and at a lot of jazz festivals across the continent. You know, jazz doesn’t have much meaning here in any kind of high profile market sense. So what’s happening is that the jazz guys and the world guys have gotten together really.
AL: And they’re doing some amazing things.
BB: Yeah, there’s some remarkable projects out there. Absolutely stunning music, I think. Do you know the group from Barcelona, Ojos de Brujo?
AL: Oh, yes. I’m very familiar with their work. They’ve recently won all sorts of European world music awards.
BB: Great! What a band!
AL: A few years ago I wrote a major feature story for Bass Player magazine on The Bassists of Flamenco. There are some great Nuevo Flamenco artists out there. Not just the commercial rumba groups like the Gypsy Kings or Engergypsy, but some really forward-thinking musicians and exceptionally imaginative projects.
BB: Yeah. Absolutely. It’s stunning. Great rhythmic stuff. Some thoughtful material and maybe some jazz guys, and maybe a guy with a couple of decks just rapping away. Really interesting approach.
AL: There’s a group, Amalgama, that came out only with one album. Some Flamenco / Jazz guys with percussionists from the Karnakata College of Music. The album is called “Encuentro”.
BB: Iain Ballamy, a saxophone player I used to work with, did some things with the Karnakata College of Music.
AL: There are two musicians whom I’m still going to recommend you check out, even though you said you’ve full plate already. They’re both in Paris. Do you know of the guitarist/composer Nguyen Le ?
BB: Yep. He’s doing that Hendrix thing right now.
AL: Yeah, the album is called “Purple”. It’s a world jazz take on Hendrix’s material. Very cool. But a few years ago he did an album with the Algerian drummer, Karim Ziad entitled, Maghreb and Friends. It’s quite unique. You really ought to hear it.
BB: The last time I heard him was in a trio hear in London, with Peter Erskine on drums and a bass player. It was very nice. Yeah, he’s much in demand around here.
AL: Well, he should be. Along with you, he’s one of my favorite artists.
BB: Yeah, he’s very good. Vietnamese guy.
AL: I know you’ve said you’ve heard a lot of music, but you owe it to yourself to check out this album. For me, it was a revelation of sorts.
BB: These suggestions are always interesting. And in fact, I’m just writing it down, Maghreb and Friends.
AL: Right. It’s on the ACT Music label out of Germany.
BB: Yeah, they’re producing a lot of good stuff.
AL: Then there’s another Frenchman who’s played with Nguyen Le … Talk about… Well, he reminds me a lot of you, quite frankly, in that he’s a brilliant instrumentalist and an amazing composer. The European press has hailed him as being the Paganini of the Double Bass, in fact. Have you ever heard of the 5-string contrabassist Renaud Garcia-Fons?
BB: No, that’s not a name I know.
AL: Bill, you definitely need to check this guy out. His compositions are extremely well crafted, and his playing is beyond belief. His most recent album, “Entremundo” is more Flamenco-based. The one before it, “Navigatore” features him multitracking his 5-string contrabass, both arco and pizzicato, as well as using a 22-piece orchestra featuring all sorts of instruments from around the world. It’s profound. So he’s using sounds and stylings both from the West and East. He composed, arranged, and produced it all himself.
BB: Really’ That sounds great.
AL: I think you’d really like it.
BB: I’m writing that one down, too. But, you know… I know it’s fun to chat about names and stuff, but… what I’m partly hearing here and I’m beginning to feel is that there are walls going up all around the United States.
AL: That’s absolutely true. Particularly for world artists to tour here.
BB: Especially post 9/11… You know how hard it is to get work permits to come and visit your lovely country?
AL: I’m a former concert promoter so yes, I certainly know how difficult it is.
BB: Okay. Well it’s hard work and it’s costing me a thousand dollars per guy to get into the States.
AL: I know. There are some fairly well-established world music ensembles who have had problems. An African ensemble had a U.S. tour booked, and then at the last minute, something went awry with INS, so they couldn’t get in right away. The group had to cancel some tour dates, even at major festivals.
BB: It’s funny. And you know, while all the European guys, I think, still of course continue to admire the great American masters and the guys who invented jazz, somehow… The reigns seem to have slipped from North America and somehow Europe is becoming incredibly self-contained. I don’t mean among itself, but it’s become the new melting pot, if you like. Classically, Louisiana, Mississippi and other places in the Deep South served as a great musical cauldron that we learned about as kids and we were all dying to come to the States, which we did, and it was terrific. But somehow it feels that the 21st-century musical melting pot is somewhere around Morocco or, as you said, Paris. And it’s interesting, that, isn’t it?
AL: It’s because of the close interaction of all these diverse cultures. Cuba, too, is producing some great music. I mean, some of the albums I’ve heard coming out of there are really amazing. And the drummers! Julio Barreto, Jimmy Branly, Horacio Hernandez, Raul Pineda and others… Many were classically trained, yet grew up listening to jazz and salsa, and folkloric music. So they’re now incorporating it all. They’re outstanding players.
AL: You know, they’re playing Son and Rumba clav’s with their feet while playing polyrhythms around them on the drum kit.
BB: They make me feel very inadequate.
AL: Oh, I don’t think you have anything to worry about.
BB: I’m just a little old white boy from the southeast of England.
AL: You’ve a lot of soul and groove in your playing. You’ve nothing to worry about that. Let’s see… moving on, back to you. What’s on Bill Bruford’s mind today? What are some things you’d like to discuss? You can use this interview as your forum, if you will.
BB: Well… We’ve touched on a couple of things. One of which is the daily working life of a bandleader, as it were. Or a small group leader, such as me. And how that has changed so much, I think. And in the little 37 years that I’ve been going, it’s unrecognizable to being the same music industry. And I suppose it’s self-evident and I don’t really think there’s much of a conversation to be had there. Everybody knows you spend your entire life behind a computer. And that gives you, I think, less time to daydream and think. It was a slower, crazier world, and we didn’t automatically know all the answers immediately, 25 years ago. There was a confidence that you could probably add something fresh. Whereas now, as you’ve just told me, we’ve spent a good part of the last 20 minutes talking about all the great musicians you’ve encountered recently. And we’re all aware of all their music almost instantly. So somehow in that general cacophony, I find it harder to find a place to live and move and express your being, as they say. And I think other young musicians might find the same. Although the great thing about young musicians is they’ve no idea how complicated it is.
AL: There’s a natural na’vet’ with youth.
BB: Which is great. And no self-doubt at all. So the great thing is they never listen to people like me, which is, as it should be.
AL: I know a lot of young musicians who listen to you. My best friend’s son, for instance…
BB: [Laughs] I don’t mean listen to my music. I mean they don’t listen… Happily, they don’t… They don’t need to know it’s going to be tricky; let me put it like that. You can be good, you could be verging on the brilliant. You can be verging on the brilliant with brilliant stamina and you can be verging on the fantastic. But to actually market a CD across to the public with some creative music on it that’s going to sell more than two or three thousand copies is extremely difficult.
AL: I can see that. And when you add to that being a bandleader such as yourself, you have a sense of obligation to your other bandmembers.
BB: Of course you do! Certainly. Certainly. I think that again, you have to use the word – it’s a much overused word – but you have to reinvent yourself every two minutes. So whereas in January of this year, say you do a blinding concert for a promoter in, let’s take any city, Seattle or Madrid. If you ask him for another gig within 18 months he’ll say, Yes, but we saw you guys just a year and a half ago. And you’ll say, Yeah, but the music’s different and we play better now. And he’ll say, Yeah, but it’s still the same group. We just had you here.
AL: As I said earlier, as a former concert promoter, I can definitely relate to that scenario.
BB: To get the ticket buyer to come out to see the same act again, it has to be new. So we have to be new about four times a year. And being new four times a year is hard work.
AL: It’s also not necessarily fair to the old material, which, as you and I well know, can mature and improve over time as you take it on the road. Often times it becomes a better piece of music after it’s been road tested.
BB: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. So the commercial circumstances under which you’re operating require having the skin of a rhinoceros and the cunning of a snake, to be able to survive in. And, fun it is. But it… [chuckles] I just organized a 30-day tour that went roughly from April through July. We went everywhere, we went to Japan, Mexico, Russia. And great crowds and they loved it. And it’s terrific. But for one date in St. Petersburg, you’re looking at 70 or 80 emails. I suffered maybe 380 emails for the Japanese trip.
AL: Believe me, I can relate. The reverse is also true, from a concert promoter’s standpoint. To produce a two-hour concert may literally several month’s worth of preparation and then some.
BB: Sure. That’s right.
AL: I wonder if there’s any way to simplify the entire process… for both camps’
BB: I don’t think any body’s hit on it yet, but wouldn’t it be great? Just to have a booking agent say, Here’s the date sheet, have a go. This, of course, requires being in constant demand, and having people prepared to go out to clubs. So, there are some fantastic people to go out and hear. And actually here in the UK, concert attendance, or live music attendance, is on the rise.
AL: That’s a good thing.
BB: It’s a great thing. As are ticket sales, in general and as are ticket prices. I mean everything is on the rise, on the up, which means we musicians are doing the right thing. We are providing value for money. People do go home with a smile on their face. People do go home thinking, That was great. That was just… Tomorrow night’ But tonight I was really in with those musicians up on stage. So the live entertainment dollar is one well spent.
AL: I’m not certain if we’re seeing that less of that here because of 9/11 and it’s aftermath. I do think we’re more inculcated and have unfortunately become more jingoistic here in America, in that there are less musicians of world renown touring here. You know, groups such as Earthworks, and many others that’ve hardly played here. A lot of it is just more of the same. I personally don’t care to see the Eagles, or Britney Spears or Green Day or Eminem or Kenny G…
BB: Yeah. A huge amount of it is more of the same in the States. You’ve the cast iron acts that will return the dollar that are probably indigenous in the States, you know, American artists of one sort or another. And so, yeah, I’m sensing that. Whereas here, there’s just a bit more mobility around Europe and these crazed nations… The strangest musical hybrids and acts are being put together. As part of this kind of reinvention thing. The problem with that, is that sometimes you get some musical dross, but you also get some great stuff.
AL: Some of it is poorly contrived, but when it clicks, it does so very well.
BB: Yeah. Sure. Uh, huh.
AL: So let’s see, how are we doing time-wise for you ?
BB: Oh, give me a couple more and then we’ll hang up. But we’re having fun.
AL: I’m doing my best not to ask you all those questions that have been posed to you before…
BB: No, not at all. We can talk about SummerFold and WinterFold, if you’d like. I’ve got a whole kind of re-release schedule afoot.
AL: Sure. And perhaps touch upon a couple of specific musical questions ?
BB: Yeah, sure.
AL: Now I just obtained yesterday, my first WinterFold releases, I have Music for Piano and Drums and Flags.
BB: Do you really’ That’s great. I must say that’s remarkable efficiency from someone.
AL: The Artist Shop, I bought them online.
BB: You bought them? Oh, sorry. I thought you were sent them because you’re critic or something.
AL: That’d be nice; I’d love it if you’d put me in your press database.
BB: Oh, okay.
AL: But these I actually purchased.
BB: I haven’t got a copy of “Flags” yet, so you’re doing very well. But… that’s amazingly quick, actually. Wow! So there you are in the States and I don’t have a copy.
AL: And it’s your own album. I’ll send you mine, if you want. You can autograph it for me.
BB: [Laughs] But I think it’s self-evident really. SummerFold is more the jazz side, that’s sort of later than 1987; WinterFold is more the guitar, rock stuff, prior to 1987.
AL: I read in an interview that you might be producing a DVD of the Bruford group? Has that come to fruition yet?
BB: Mmmmmmmaybe. Lot of tortuous negotiations with the BBC. Who are very expensive.
AL: Please put me on your list. I’d love to see it. Bruford still is one of my favorite bands.
BB: We have a DVD out this Christmas with a Dutch musician, whose name, I don’t know whether you know or not, Michiel Borstlap. Great player. Terrific man. We’ve an on-off conversational duo. And updated Moraz / Bruford, if you’d like.
AL: Oh yeah?
BB: We’ve had a kind of conversational sort of, turn up and play kind of group, for the last couple of years. So we recorded some of that, and got some DVD footage on that, and they’re both coming out in November. He kind of shot to fame in Holland because Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock covered one of his compositions. And he won the T.S. Monk award or something. One of those… he’s a prize-winner guy. Not like me at all. So he’s one of these accolade-garnering guys. A lovely pianist. So we just kind of turn up and start playing.
AL: That was one of my impressions about Music for Piano and Drums. That was the first time you’d left the confines, so to speak, of a playing in a full ensemble to play in an intimate duet configuration. You must’ve had an immediate sense of play for lack of any other word, versus the tedious, Wait, my bass tone’s not right, or Hold on, my mellotron is all argy-bargy again.
BB: Oh yeah! Oh, all my groups are like that! They’re like girlfriends on the rebound, you know. I mean all that wearing and turning of the King Crimson guitar sound, all I wanted to hear was a saxophone and a bass. [Laughs] And after all the precision of Yes arrangements and so forth, and King Crimson and UK and Bruford-type of arrangements… Then to just turn up and play with a guy, I must admit, is just pleasurable. As you say, it’s playful.
AL: Right. For decades, I was always tied to, as I call it, the tyranny of electricity, playing the electric bass. And it wasn’t until a few years ago when I got my first acoustic 5-string bass guitar, it was like, Wow. This is freedom!
BB: Yeah, you become emancipated from all the amps, cables, A/C, the whole bit. It’s a lot of fun. So the duo with Moraz / Bruford and now Michiel Borstlap are kind of based on that. Just conversational dialogue material. So that’s coming out before Christmas and after the New Year we have a pretty ambitious re-release schedule through the whole of 2005. So I think both labels will probably have 10 to 15 CDs on each by the time we arrive at the end of 2006.
AL: Congratulations. I’m looking forward hearing them all. Okay, here’s a musical question for you.
AL: For years you’ve had a signature motif — I hesitate to call it a fill – but it’s the one that goes: Tat-tat-tat, Tat-tat-tat, Tat-tat-tat. You’ve been doing that for a long time, in a wide variety of contexts and ensembles.
BB: Oh yeah.
AL: Where does that come from and why?
BB: It’s… I dunno… It’s… a little signature. It’s a way… Any African drummer would know what I’m talking about. He’d say, Well, I play this, and then every body listens to me. When I play this, what it means is that I’m talking now. Or, that I’m about to talk. What it also means is, the music has started. Or it might mean the music has ended.
AL: I’ve heard you play it in all those contexts.
BB: Absolutely. But whatever it is, it’s the drummer imposing himself in saying – and any kind of tribal drummer would understand what I’m talking about – he’s imposing himself in stating, Right now, the music is going to go this way. Or it’s either going to stop. Or it’s going to start. Or it’s going to attract the attention of a noisy audience, maybe.
AL: I’m surprised it’s not in seven.
BB: [Laughs] It’s just a little phrase. Music is a language of a sort. And we all speak in funny ways.
AL: Now how are we doing for time?
BB: Well, I really must do something else. It’s fun talking, but why don’t you give me one more and then we’ll probably call it a day.
AL: A quick little one and then a more serious one. What is your cat’s name ?
BB: We have two cats, actually. We had three but the last one died, I think. So currently we have a Mango. And we have a Monty.
AL: I have one, her name is Khatru.
BB: You mean after…?
AL: Yep. Siberian Khatru.
AL: Let’s see, here’s one. How did you come up with the name Earthworks?
BB: Oh, the usual thing. In the last five minutes. Django Bates, Iain Ballamy and I had to find a name in a hurry.
AL: So it was that quick?
BB: One of those, nobody could decide. We liked the name Earthworks because it comes at you at three or four different levels. But its disadvantage is that it’s word nobody outside of England understands.
AL: Actually there’s a professional lawn company here with that very same name.
BB: Really’ Ah, well that’s cool. There’s also a microphone company. There’s also a pottery in Barbados, earthenware products. But earthworks are all over England. You only have to go up in a light plane and see how the countryside, which is so old and has had people walking around on it for 2,000 or 3,000 years. You see where peoples’ earthworks were. Where their early homes were built. Where their early farmsteads were built. Where their early fortifications were. These are earthworks. It has a long connection to time and history. Secondly, in order to build a building of some stature at all, you have to first of all, dig its foundation or earthworks. So it becomes the foundation for a building; the foundation of building a career in jazz, if you like. It also has implications of man’s work here on Earth as his own earthworks. Blah, blah, blah… It goes on in several ways to us English guys. But this doesn’t translate at all into American, funny enough. The concept of primeval dwellings, the way Native Americans lived, is blown to dust, really. Whereas in our country, you can still see the fortifications of where ancient people were and their early ramparts and diggings and so forth.
AL: You only see that in isolated locations here.
BB: Depending upon the terrain and topography. It means nothing in German and it’s terrible in Japanese, and bloody awful in American, so it’s only a partially good choice.
AL: Well, if it’s any consolation, I’ve always liked it.
BB: Thanks. [Laughs] Well, I think we ought to wrap it up. I must cheerfully go do something else. But it’s been fun talking.
AL: You’ ve been very gracious with your time, Bill. And, as I said at the onset, it has been an extreme honor for me to speak with you. A dream come true.
BB: Thanks. All right, Robert. Take care.
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