Subtitled “A Complete-Career Collection” and scanning his multifaceted adventures in rhythm, comprehensive box set touches on legendary beatmaker’s musical story.
It’s difficult to deny the magic of the “BB” abbreviation. Bill Bruford’s status in the world of percussion is equal to Brigitte Bardot’s stance in cinema: the English musician was a scientist in his field, an institution even, long before he obtained a Ph.D. – an academic, not a honorary, degree – and though every drummer perpetually moves while sitting down, the veteran has been influential for a few decades thanks to his ability to simultaneously always move forward and progress beyond the obvious. Aeons ago, when this scribe tried to score an interview with Bill, his press attaché replied that BB didn’t dabble in rock any longer, that he indeed moved on in a successful attempt to cover much more ground that many other virtuosi could only dream of. There’s an artist who dared and designed an undeniably individual domain within a wider drumming discourse he’s touching upon in the hardback book included in “Making A Song And Dance”: 70 tracks spread over six discs bringing together, under the groove-suggesting title, the different strands of BB’s creative career to project a unified, self-curated perspective of his oeuvre. Here’s how he prefers to see it all now.
Brought together – albeit, for the most part, organized chronologically, in the order of release – all these tracks stress how organic Bruford’s sonic approach was across 40 years, no matter what kit he used, acoustic or electronic: be it a Ludwig or Simmons set, Bill’s handling of meters are easily recognizable, and if the latter feels outdated now – just like the SynthAxe that his U.K. colleague Allan Holdsworth deployed around the same period, in the ’80s, does – the former still retains the drummer’s trademark snare crunch. There’s an astounding continuity to his method, despite his frequent performances alongside equally unorthodox peers possessed of idiosyncratic streak, such as the aforementioned guitarist, YES bassist Chris Squire or KING CRIMSON commander Robert Fripp, and the shifting of styles he had to adapt to – and contribute to as composer and arranger.
But then, acclaimed for all his sophisticated time signatures, Bruford’s never been averse to playing for the song, which is nicely documented on the first two CDs here, bearing “The Collaborator” tag, with the sparse boom of his bass drum driving the folk sentiment of the box opener, “I’ve Seen All Good People” from 1971, where it anchors Jon Anderson‘s angelic vocals, and the simple beat of Bill’s toms guiding 1982’s “Neal And Jack And Me” towards nervous breakdown until percussive vignettes accentuate the character of the piece per se as well as breadth of his steady scope. This scope wasn’t limited to these classics from, respectively, YES and CRIMSON that BB served in; the same sensibilities comer to the surface on the silky-cum-robust “Seems Like A Lifetime Ago” by BRUFORD the band – penned by Bill and voiced by Annette Peacock.
More so, playing for the songs with flair, he never went for flash and shaped drama via purely musical means, rather than blinding the listener with sticks’ tricks or indulging in unaccompanied acrobatics as illustrated by the brilliant, staccato-tinctured, concert reading of “Indiscipline” from 1995 and BB’s blistering, yet delicate, clang on 2009’s “The Still Small Voice” from Colin Riley’s PIANOCIRCUS, his chime and strike propelling this piece to minimalistic bliss and “Achilles Feel” to ecstasy. As for the fantastic tempos, Bruford’s thunder and Squire’s rumble build not so much artsy aural assault on “Heart Of The Sunrise” as an almost impenetrable wall of sound that Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman‘s passages can barely stick to to adorn – but that conveys the barely bearable rapture of the dawn, once Bill and Chris dissolve their swirl to start all over. Bill might be blending into the ensemble’s vibrant textures on YES’ “And You And I” for which he wrote the “Eclipse” section, but he would reach dynamic equilibrium when left alone with John Wetton‘s pipes and bass on KING CRIMSON’s “The Great Deceiver” that smells of Albion’s green pastures too, and “One More Red Nightmare” that, oiled by Ian McDonald‘s sax, reprises the already familiar assault in a murky, if funky, manner. And, of course, the rustling of cymbals on “Starless” renders the tremendously tender ballad painfully exquisite.
CRIMSON was special for Bruford, and not because of Fripp’s collective’s high profile, but by virtue of Robert’s continuous search for fresh fashions of expression, involving Bill as integral part of the process and, thus, essential part of two of the group’s rebirths. This is why his three tenures in their ranks – in 1972-1974, 1981-1984 and 1994-1997 – allowed BB, eternally detesting repeating patterns, to implement various techniques in various environments of a single, or singular, entity, while staying true to his drumming ideology. And this is why instrumental “Fracture” from the early stint should be logically linked, through Bill’s dry shots (if not his euphoric shout over the frantic rifferama), to the middle-period “Frame By Frame” which was as defined by Adrian Belew’s lyrical, albeit throbbing, angularity as “Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream” with its well-measured polyrhythms which find the veteran and Pat Mastelotto exert telepathy on the double-trio line-up. What’s no less important, in KING CRIMSON the skin-hitter met a couple of people vital to perpetuating his further development.
First of those was John Wetton, his sparring partner in U.K. It’s both a surprise and a pity that Bill picked just one of their pieces to feature in the box set, the diaphanous, fragile “Nevermore” perfectly representing the quartet’s intricate interplay, with BB’s providing resilient connective tissue between Wetton’s four and Holdsworth’s six strings, and Eddie Jobson’s lucid violin and ivories, yet this number will not be their sole legacy present here. The buzzing “Beelzebub” from the drummer’s first solo offering, 1978’s “Feels Good to Me” – out of which the group billed with his last name grew – began its existence when John and Bill tried to team up with Wakeman but can be heard on “Song And Dance” in EARTHWORKS’ before-the-audience version. Also, having had abandoned the band following the departure of Alan who wanted them to remain an improv-pursuing unit, Bill took two more on-stage flights to transmogrify them into suites on BRUFORD’s 1979 debut, “One Of A Kind” – whence, bolstered by Holdsworth’s filigree, Dave Stewart’s glimmering keyboards and Jeff Berlin‘s supple runs, the two-part “One Of A Kind” arrives to palpitate and swing on CD3, the first of the two marked as “The Composing Leader” and highlighting Bruford’s fusion combos.
BRUFORD, between 1978 and 1980, and EARTHWORKS, from 1986 to 2009, when he retired, gave Bill the ultimate liberty – to an extent where he was able to completely withdraw drums from the enchantingly romantic, chamber lounge of “Palewell Park” and let another percussive apparatus, Stewart’s piano, draw his alluring motif – and a chance to reveal his elegiac vulnerability. It’s so palpable in his tentative pace on reedman Iain Ballamy-directed “It Needn’t End In Tears” that Django Bates’ brass licks lift to celestial realm, on the sassy, sans-words cover of Petula Clark’s “Downtown” which turns adventurous and exciting thanks to BB’s perky punctuation, or on “Pilgrim’s Way” which, again devoid of drums, sweetly calls the listener to surrender to passion.
BB’s second foil was Tony Levin – the two comprising, with Fripp, what’s best described by the elegant jive of 1984’s “Three Of A Perfect Pair” – whose outside-of-box perception of groove challenging Bruford to deliver his best lines. In Levin’s company, Bill, for all his jazz-rock credentials, could as readily embrace pop agenda, preserving it for posterity on the likes of CRIMSON’s “Waiting Man” – laying down straight pulse while adding Latino touches to this number and ABWH’s “Brother Of Mine” from 1989, which in the presence of Bruford, Anderson, Howe and Wakeman reprises YES’ daybreak delight, as BB had tried a similar tropical jaunt on EARTHWORKS’ “My Heart Declares A Holiday” a couple of years earlier. There was no wonder, then, in the advent of Bill and Tony’s joint venture BRUFORD LEVIN UPPER EXTREMITIES – rounded off with David Torn’s guitar and Chris Botti’s trumpet – in 1998; the wonder lurked in the music of B.L.U.E. that’s in turns effervescently angular and unpredictably smooth but invariably riveting as BB’s engine is chugging to hold the foursome’s mosaic in place.
Still, nothing will ignite Bruford aficionado’s fantasy as the unplugged lace of “Thistledown” from his one-off spell with Ralph Towner and Eddie Gomez, notched in 1997 and mesmeric in the their album’s barely-there beauty, Bill’s gentle rim action peppering his fellow travelers’ transparent weave of notes. Yet it was EARTHWORKS that BB kept returning to, and the live thrill of “Nerve” explains why he was compelled to do so, and the jovial, Eurocentric “Revel Without A Pause” and “White Knuckle Wedding” displaying the ensemble’s humorous disposition and Bruford’s happy breaks which “Triplicity” focuses, and expands, on. Expanded to a nonet after taking wind charmer Tim Garland’s team on board and christening themselves EARTHWORKS UNDERGROUND ORCHESTRA, the band went to “The Iridium” and “Yoshi’s” clubs in 2004 so the public would enjoy the acoustic magnificence of “Speaking In Wooden Tongues” and Bill’s sympathetic thump.
It was around this point that BB’s jazz-rock lost the rock aspect and approximated trad jazz, as the frivolous “Footloose And Fancy Free” and the swelling “Thud” signal with gusto, something he loved and respected from the very beginning – and had the privilege to pay homage to one on his heroes, Buddy Rich, by submitting the finely detailed “Lingo” for the Neal Peart-produced tribute to the great American and drumming with the legend’s big band. The cut in question is housed on CD5, titled “The Special Guest” and exposing Bruford’s talent in the context of his friends’ albums – tethering Howe’s belligerent uplift on 1991’s “The Inner Battle” with the same warm resolve as pushing shuffle into Squire’s pocket symphony of “Silently Falling” from 1975, and stretching the punchy ethereality of Torn’s 1990 look at “Voodoo Chile” – and, sadly, due to licensing issues, not showing him play for GENESIS and PAVLOV'S DOG and on “Union” by YES, in tandem with Alan White.
This would put Bill in prog confines anew, however, just as the tellingly-titled “Small Wonder” from guitarist Kazumi Watanabe’s 1988 platter slings him back into the fierce-to-soft fusion domain, as a writer and a performer, side by side with an old sidekick Berlin and the chameleonic Peter Vettese on keyboards who help elevate the rattling echoes of Bruford’s blues to the clouds, and the Al Di Meola’s “Calliope” from 1983 throws him in with Levin again, juxtaposing acoustic and electronic hits with Jan Hammer’s hypnagogic gestures. What’s genuinely unexpected to have emanated from the veteran’s skins is the convivial rockabilly wallop of his least celebrated groups, TRIGGER that Roy Harper pulled in in 1975 and that saw the drummer lark about on “Grown Ups are Just Silly Children” to the twang of Chris Spedding‘s chords – which must be as far as it might from “The Improviser”: the sixth disc in the box and the reflection of BB’s über-intuitive chops – except, perhaps, for the seven jubilant minutes of “Three Minutes Of Pure Entertainment” from David Torn’s 2019 triumph on ECM on which blues-wailing guitars host Mark Isham’s blares and Bill’s abandon.
Improv was a major component of his on-stage life, so the tangents he would go off on with old collectives are charted here via CRIMSON’s eerie “No Warning” and EARTHWORKS’ barebone “With Friends Like These…” where BB’s impressionistic daubs seem abstract yet bouncy, but the bulk of the last CD emerges from the records he did with Patrick Moraz and Michiel Borstlap – two albums per each pairing with either pianist. There’s Satie imprint on 1983’s “Galatea” that arrestingly marries Moraz’s ripples to Bruford’s tidal waves which lap over the march of “Symmetry” and the solemn “Flags” from 1985; and even so, Bill’s attaining extreme liberty in the contemporary jazz territory of the vast, invigorating “16 Kingdoms Of The 5 Barbarians” – penned to be passed to Borstlap live in 2004 – and still stitching it, strongly and imaginatively, to the New Orleans prototype before eyeing the future in the hopeful melancholy of “Low Tide, Camber Sands” and the sparkling clangor of “Kinship” from 2007.
It’s hardly a coincidence that this is where “A Song And Dance” stops, “kinship” being a keyword for many a number here – and a link from the drummer to his listener, much strengthened after delving into the box set which may merely scrape the veneer of BB’s career to hint at the depth underneath yet, without churning up real rarities, prompts the cognoscenti and novices alike to investigate his legacy from his own angle.