Interview with Bill Bruford on BBC Radio 3: Jazz on 3

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Date Submitted: 15-Apr-2003
Submitted By: Daniel Bamford (djbamford at lycos dot co dot uk)

Interview by Jez Nelson, BBC Radio 3.

Transcribed by Daniel Bamford, December 1999.


JN: -Bill Bruford is a man who's used his fame and, perhaps, fortune to further his life's true musical passion: jazz. Bruford was famously the drummer for those monsters of rock pretension, Yes -Surely the role models for Spinal Tap and the curse of 1970s university halls. He also played briefly with Genesis and Gong and then to great and continuing acclaim with King Crimson.

In the late '70s he set up his own band, named it after himself and took on the guitarist Allan Holdsworth; which brings us to 1986 and the formation of the first version of Earthworks. I spoke to Bill before the gig about the band's role as a springboard for young talent...


BB:- I think the young British guys view me as a sort of Art Blakey, you know, a sort of grandfather who has this vehicle called Earthworks which can give them a bit of an international platform.

JN:- I suppose the difference between you and Art Blakey is that, having formed Earthworks in '86 with Iain Ballamy and Django Bates, Tim Harries [error -Mick Hutton was the original bass player], you pretty much stuck with that group for, well, 4 albums, didn't you?

BB:- We did, yes, we did about 4-odd albums, then there was a bit of a lull because King Crimson -the rock group with which I'm occassionally associated- lurched into action and during that intermission the band personnel changed and we now have a second edition of Earthworks with new young players: Steve Hamilton on keyboards, Patrick Clahar -sometimes known for his work with Incognito- on tenor saxophone and soprano saxophone and also 'man of the minute' Mark Hodgson on bass.

JN:- What interests me is that I remember talking to you in the early '90s about Earthworks and I know when you were writing for the group you very much had those musicians in mind and obviously Django Bates and Iain Ballamy are very distinctive players, so you did 4 albums with those guys and now it's really a brand new band so, presumably, you're having to think differently when you write now...?

BB:- Entirely so, what you've said is quite true, but there was a down side to that for me personally as a drummer-leader which was that I became very dependent upon Django and Iain specifically making the gig, which is not always possible to do in the jazz world. You know, Django began to ascend to the dizzy heights of fame that he's at now and therefore it'a very difficult to book him for a single Friday night in Penge...

JN:- [chuckles]

BB:- ...without a large bribe or a substantial tour behind it. It was very difficult to offer the kind of work that was necessary. The band did change, we now have a more conventional line-up. Django and Iain were very idiosyncratic and produced a lot of the particular sound around which the band was formed. That has now really been changed somewhat to the more traditional tenor saxophone, piano, bass and drums line-up, which is a quartet sound which I still adore and I still think there's plenty that you can do with those particular instruments. That also offers you a very mobile group and is one that can function quite easily, as opposed to taking tons of equipment about.

JN:- It's interesting that you pick up on that because the new album and the concert is, well, for want of a better phrase, certainly more 'straight ahead.' I guess the older Earthworks had, perhaps, a stronger connection with your sort of 'art rock' days; there's certainly a slightly more quirky sound, so, I mean, is that something that you're going to miss, do you think, with playing in this straight ahead context?

BB:- Well, it's time I missed it. Yes, I am leaving a rock background and somehow I only seem able to do it in stages and I think Earthworks -edition one- was a stage of seperation from the 'quirkiness' of art rock, as you so delightfully put it. In fact there still is an element; I mean my background is my background, I can't choose or wish another background and it's what it is and I'm quite happy and proud of that, and that is as legitimate an influence in jazz as if you were a Norwegian saxophone player or a guy from Mississippi or something, it's a background; it's something you bring to jazz and I hope to bring that background to both Earthworks the new and the old editions, but yes, the electronic stuff's gone and, yes, I would prefer to trade or deal in the more traditional jazz quartet sound, yeah.

JN:- I mean, the new players that you have in the group, are they aware of you as a drummer because of your work with Earthworks or because of what you did before and also because of your return to working with King Crimson and occassionally with Yes and your old Yes colleagues?

BB:- Well, the young guys are completely unfamiliar with the music of 25 to 30 years ago and my origins and so forth. Occassionally King Crimson strayed into their consciousness, but I remember sitting Django Bates down and playing him some fairly 'out' King Crimson and he was very impressed, but most of the jazz guys don't know that much about the rock side, quite rightly; not a lot going on, but King Crimson was, I believe, one of the great rock bands that did have a lot of interest to the thinking jazz player, so every now and then I sit them down and force feed them some King Crimson and say this is what I have been doing [laughs].

JN:- You're in an interesting position though, because now, because of the reputation of Earthworks, but also because of your reputation before that, you get to sort of travel and play with your group and you're an ambassador for British jazz. I mean, I was reading this article in 'The New York Times' which starts off with the paragraph:

"England may have had a powerful influence in the rock music world, but its effect on jazz has been, at best, minimal..."

and it then goes on to talk about how impressive your group is and that's quite an interesting thing because, I'm sure you'd agree, there are lots of...England has actually had quite a big influence on jazz over the last 20 years or so, but you are actually in the unique position to go out there, because of your name, and spread the word.

BB:- I am indeed in a very unique position, you're quite right, and I'm bringing a large number of people in who sort of followed me in through bits and pieces of my early solo work. What I think the British misunderstand is the wholly willful ignorance of Americans towards European jazz. Most Americans refuse to believe that Europeans can or do play jazz at all, hence that little article that you read out there. They genuinely can't understand why British people would want to play what they perceive as American jazz. It's not much use explaining that we have our own folk music and our own art rock backgrounds or our own Norwegian backgrounds or French or Russian backgrounds. Americans are very myopic about this [laughs].

JN:- Finally, you mentioned at the beginning of the interview that you're seen as a bit of a British Art Blakey, does that mean that there will be other musicians coming into this band or do you think that you'll be working with this version of Earthworks for a few years yet?

BB:- Whenever I form a band I consider I'm going to be working with the musicians for life, but of course, life's not like that, necessarily so, and it's very much the jazz way: People give a lot and they take a lot and when they can give no more and take no more it is their obligation, I think, to move on. So long as they feel they're giving and taking in equal balance then a band will be of use to them. Necessarily; people grow up, move on, want to do other things, but for the foreseeable future I'd like to play with this quartet, which we've been working with now for about a year and a half.

JN:- Bill Bruford, thanks for talking to me.

BB:- My pleasure, Jez. Printed without permission by BBC Radio 3.