Saturday, April 6, 2013

In Praise of Bill Bruford

My "In Praise of... " series is intended to shine the spotlight on artists who, in my opinion, continue to be under appreciated. While not necessarily in any particular order, I feel compelled to write about the artists that I feel A) the most personally geeked about and B) are most deserving of the added attention and appreciation. Today I'm shining the spotlight on enigmatic yet-distinctive drummer Bill Bruford.
     You're probably thinking, "Bill Bruford?! But he's one of the most celebrated rock/prog drummers of all-time! Why would you feel he is under appreciated or understood?" Precisely because too many people pigeon-hole Bill into a single stylistic category: "Yes' drummer" or "King Crimson's drummer" or "great early prog drummer." Yes, he is all of those, but he is so much more than those. He is like a multifaceted diamond:  his engagements with Yes, King Crimson, Genesis, UK, National Health, Bruford, Annette Peacock, Patrick Moraz, Earthworks versions I, II and III, Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe, Bruford-Levin Upper Extremities, and Gordian Knot match up with but some of the facets of that diamond. Overall he was a drummer. An adventurous, workman-like drummer with jazz tendencies and technological curiosities. If you've read his recent autobiography you know that he was always insecure with the acclaim his abilities and performances brought upon him--that the pressure of what he felt were the external expectations for perfection and amazement etched away at his self-confidence and enjoyment of some of his gigs. Also, that at heart he was more of what we'd call a jazz drummer in that, like Jan Akkerman, he got bored doing things the same, would get quickly bored with doing things in straight time (much to the chagrin and eternal frustration of Crimson leader Robert Fripp), that he felt that every time he sat at his kit it was an opportunity for new adventure, for exploration, for experimentation, for testing the boundaries of what (he) had been done before.
     Bill was always curious about the possibilities that his skills and equipment could bring to a musical event. He far preferred live performance to studio recording--and even more preferred the loosely improvised "conversations" he could have in the framework of a jazz duo (with Patrick Moraz or Michiel Borstlap), trio (with Ralph Towner and Eddie Gomez), or combo (like his own three Earthworks projects)--or in a drum circle like the New Percussion Group of Amsterdam. Despite this attraction to freedom of the jazz idiom, there seemed to be something about the energy and electricity of rock that seemed to bring him back time and again--or perhaps this fact rests more in the name he had made for himself in his earlier years within the Yes and King Crimson formats:  more requests for his contributions and collaborations came more from the rock domain of musicians because that is where he had made his mark. But then, some of the rock musicians that he returned to over and over (Robert Fripp, Tony Levin, Rick Wakeman) created highly challenging, liberating, even improvisational fusion music.
      The well-known exploration of and attraction to the electronic possibilities of the drum kit are a segment of Bill's career that many fans try to minimize or ignore or, in their biased generosity, tolerate. I, myself, am equally enamored and open to the explorations of programmed drum machines like the Linn or the programmable computerized drums with their potential for clever sampling, looping and sequencing. Plus, the ability to program odd or known sounds into drum pads to this day holds much attraction to me. The potential for rhythmatists to contribute 'piano,' 'bass,' 'saxophone,' 'breaking glass' or even voice samples through a percussive hit to their computerized drum pads is, to me, ingenious and, frankly, liberating. The ability for percussion-oriented musicians to contribute are greatly enhanced and broadened.
     The 1908s King Crimson and, later, Earthworks recordings are mesmerizing to me for the job of trying to pick out Bill's contributions to each song through the playing of his programmed computer pads. Concert attendance and video footage is always surprising and illuminating as I find myself fixed on Bill while trying to listen for the sounds associated with his playing. I find this 'work' enjoyable and fascinating. Plus, the guy had a real gift for A) choosing interesting sounds to program and play from his Simmons pads and B) creating very cool melodies and riffs from the programmed sounds he played.
     The frustrations of the vulnerabilities of electrified, computerized percussives eventually got Bill to return to all- or mostly acoustic drumming--to which I am entirely ambivalent. I love Bill's hypnotic work whether it's on a drum kit, xylophone, Simmons kit, or hand-held marimba. The guy does things that no other drummer does. He is not really the time keeper, instead, he uses his instrument to serve notice to the beats in every song that are always there but most people (would) fail to hear. For some reason, I hear these beats--in all music. The off-beats, the downbeats, the upbeats, the missed or silent beats that are possible between all percussive hits, and even the polyrhythms that would/could work into a weave with the existing beats. I get what Bill does. You might even say that I get his approach to drumming better than I do that of a solid rhythm-keeper like Max Weinberg or Ringo Starr. It is creative and emotion-based. It is loose and improvisational. It attracts the listener's attention and I am alright with that.
     Though I have many, many favorite Bill Bruford songs and moments, the album that I would suggest to anyone who wants to be totally immersed in the pure joy and genius of Bill Bruford's ability as well as his heart and soul would be the collection of duets he recorded with Patrick Moraz in 1983, Music for Piano and Drums. There is an underlying sense of joy mixed within the technical mastery exuded by the two masters on this album that makes me think, "This is it! This the most beloved performance style for both of these incredible artists!" Two human beings telling a stories or having conversations through musical means.
     Would that financial gain (remember: music was a job, an income and family supporting vocation first and foremost for Bill) and critical acclaim had come with Music for Piano and Drums, I think Bill would not have been so easily lured back into the rock formats with King Crimson or Yes. And yet, he did, he was lured back, and we have a lot of diverse recorded information documenting the existence and contributions of this amazingly adventurous, innovative and creative musician. At the same time, it wasn't too long after the Moraz sessions and appearances that the Earthworks project was born. But, listen: My point is that Bill Bruford was so much more than a drummer of Yes, King Crimson, UK and Bruford! There is so much more wonderful music out there if you're only willing and patient enough to seek it out and give it a try.

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