Saturday, April 11, 2009

Bill Bruford

Bill Bruford, after Ringo Starr, was the first drummer I ever paid more attention to than the other members of the band whose album or song I was listening to at any particular moment. And I remember quite well the first time I heard Bruford, and, by extension, Yes. Sometime in early 1972, I was staying up late listening to WQXI-FM (94.1), then the first FM station in Atlanta to play songs beyond the Top 40, which is what you could hear on its sister AM station. On WQXI AM, you would get the edited version of "Roundabout," by Yes, if that. On the FM station, you would get the whole song, including the middle "B" section ("Along the drifting cloud the eagle searching/Down on the land . . ."). But "Roundabout" wasn't the first tune that drew me into a life-long fascination with -- and addiction to -- Yes and Bruford. The song that literally forced me to stop drumming on the pillows that I had carefully arranged on my bed was "Long Distance Runaround," still, in my view, among the most elegant and sophisticated three and a half minutes of rock music ever. For most listeners, I suppose, the opening jazz-inflected guitar line of Steve Howe is what immediately pulls the listener into the song. For me, though, it was the crystalline tone of Bruford's ride cymbal and the jazz-like but rock-rooted kinda-swing, kinda-something else drum pattern that propelled the song along. The counterpoint bass of the incomparable Chris Squire, the greatest bass player (after Paul McCartney) in the history of rock, made this is rhythm section unlike anything I had heard in rock music, probably because neither Bruford or Squire were locked into the traditional roles of the bassist and drummer. For rock drummers and/or bassists to lock-in and play melodically with and against each other was so far outside the box that you couldn't have located the box with infra-red night vision goggles. Other rock drummers of that time, even the great ones like Keith Moon, John Bonham, Carl Palmer or Charlie Watts, didn't play like Bruford did. Only Phil Collins, who American audiences were not familiar with because Genesis had not yet found acceptance in America (that would take about another year), was playing with the same level of sophistication as Bruford.

So, naturally, after I had fallen hard for Yes and decided I wanted to play just like Bruford, the rat bastard announced he was leaving the band after "Close to the Edge." After Close to the Edge? Perhaps the greatest album in the progressive rock history? Did he have arthritis, like Sandy Koufax, and decide to leave at the top of his game rather than make the fatal athlete's mistake of sticking around just long enough to make everyone forget about his or her greatness? As it turned out, Bruford did not have arthritis; rather he had the musical shplikes, the Yiddish word for "nervous energy," the inability to sit still, the need to do something, anything to keep the brain moving. Make one of the greatest records ever? Thank you very much, said Bruford. Now let's move on to a new challenge rather than just make another record in the same vein. As someone who would have killed -- literally, I really do -- to sit in the Yes drum chair, it took me a long time to understand how anyone could leave a band after having done something so spectacular. By my early 30s, about twenty years after I first heard "Long Distance Runaround," I finally figured it out. Bruford simply felt that he had accomplished as much artistically as he could have with Yes and that it was time to move on to another situation -- in his case, the sadistic enterprise led by Robert Fripp known as King Crimson. Did that for a few years, then called it a day, moved on to play with his buddy Phil Collins during the 1976 Genesis tour, after Phil had taken front-man and vocalist duties from Peter Gabriel, requiring a trusted and exceptionally skilled drummer to fill his spot for live performances. Cashed that check and then started his own band, Bruford, which moved closer to the template that has guided his career ever since: improvisational music, not quite jazz and not quite rock but never treading towards the dreaded "fusion" bin where musicality is too often sacrificed for self-indulgence and a "see-how-fast-I-can-play-this" mentality. Bruford made some incredible albums under his own name, especially "Gradually Going Tornado" and "One of a Kind," before going back to King Crimson, then started his own semi-electric, semi-acoustic band, Earthworks, which eventually moved towards the more traditional acoustic jazz model, then took a quick detour back into Yes in the late 1980s and early 1990s, leaving again to make a record with Eddie Gomez and Ralph Towner . . .

Yes, that Eddie Gomez, who was the great jazz pianist Bill Evans's bassist from 1966-1977.

. . . and then back to Earthworks and King Crimson again before, by the late 1990s, settling into Earthworks and jazz once and for all.

I just finished reading Bruford's autobiography, and, typically for him, it is unlike anything I have ever read about a musician's life. First, he writes well. Second, he is open and forthright about his personal and musical life without feeling the need to settle scores. Third, and not finally, he is remarkably frank about what he believes are his own shortcomings as a musician and how hard it is to get to that point in your career where you believe you have made a contribution to something larger than just cashing your paycheck. As a drummer, Bruford stands out in so many ways: his precise approach to time that never stagnates into drum machine-like mechanics, his signature snare drum sound (which I've never really cared for, prefering a fuller, less "pingy" sound myself), his ability to play in all sorts of time signatures without making it sound like he's playing a math problem and his constantly evolving set-up and choice of instruments. All of this, of course, in search of something new.

Bruford mentions towards the beginning of his autobiography a piece of advice he received early in his career from King Crimson co-drummer and percussionist Jamie Muir, who told him that drummers, like all musicians, exist to serve the music, not the reverse. That might seem like a pretty fundamental point -- we all should acknowledge that we are part of something larger, and that our best efforts should be directed towards advancing the art or profession that we have claimed as our own. Twenty years into my chosen profession, I am confronted by the stark realization that the majority of academics, whether in their research or teaching, are content to go along in order to get along, a maxim more familiar to the political world than an environment dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. Just as I have never felt that practicing what I already know is particularly useful, I don't think that reading, thinking and writing about what I have already read, thought and written about is terribly challenging or interesting. Bill Bruford, as a musician, has accomplished infinitely more than I ever will as a professor or writer. But his stubborn pursuit of ideas new and interesting, and his determination to practice and develop the techniques and skills necessary to achieve them, even if that means disappointing an "audience" that wants him to do the same things year after year, should inspire anyone who wants to make a contribution to whatever the passion or profession that animates their dreams and informs their soul.

1 comment:

deacon blues said...

Nice read, well-stated.

Bruford is a musician's musician - an explorer and interesting cat.

"Land's End" remains one of my favorite pieces of ... whatever it is that he does.