Bill Bruford's Eathworks

Random Acts of Happiness

Summerfold Records, USA - CD

Well. Can anything further be said with the Coltrane-type quartet structure? Actually, that's not the question (though I think the short form answer is yes). Later for what it is, though, because Bill Bruford, first heard by me in 1970 on THE YES ALBUM (a record which shot off delightful energetic 'prog' mania in so many directions I at first had to keep my head down while listening) has grown dramatically as a percussionist since he first appeared in the Yes group.

Passing through many versons of King Crimson, touring with Genesis and National Health, I figured by the late '70s I had him pegged as a technically voracious ambidext (that may not be a word and I apologize if it isn't) who made his living in this odd demiworld we called 'prog rock.' Then one day came his Bruford band, a deft balance of 'fusion,' 'prog' and good old-fashioned musicianship, and then next Earthworks. Early on consisting of Ian Ballamy and Django Bates, among others, this was a foursome which made me ask, 'Huh? Where's the lumbering amped-up 10/8 riffs, the 25-minute etudes for the wide-eyed?' Not here; Earthworks, a semi-traditional Jazz quartet ('semi' in that they wrote mostly their own bits, stayed pretty rigorously 'in' and utilized all sorts of impressionist tonal and Third World percussion strategies), did take as a given what Bruford learned in Crimso and other amalgams but allowed us to hear Bruford learning how to figure out what and when not to play.

For a fellow who often seemed to have as many hands with sticks as your standard high school marching band (and often a drum kit larger than Rhode Island), to listen to him pare back his virtuosity and channel it through a completely different set of parameters was, simply, a joy. Equally, and this will appear selfish of me, it was neat to see a musician I admired move on in his interests much as I had. Crimso got me into Bartok, Yes turned me on to Stravinsky, et al; so since 'prog' is not my thing any more it's gratifying to have an old fave artist I've been able to follow as he, to use the vernacular of a vanished era, 'changed his head' too. Kind of validates my own growth! If that's what it is.

Bruford fetishists who simply must have him 'overdo it' do get their jollies here on RANDOM ACTS (recorded live at a club in Oakland, CA called Yoshi's in May '03) at the end of "Bajo del Sol" with a furious flourish from the man at the fade-out of a long sunny rave-up; or there's "White Knuckle Wedding"'s mellifluous log drum underpinnings, ably danced astride by saxophonist Tim Garland; and in a utile moment mid on during "My Heart Declares A Holiday," pianist Steve Hamilton steps into an ostinato so Bruford can 'step out.' But if band dynamics are more your bag, try Bruford's rescoring of "Seems Like A Lifetime Ago," originally sung by Annette Peacock on Bill's debut solo effort FEELS GOOD TO ME (1978). Garland takes the theme with a Dexter Gordon lushness, turning it over to look for corners not in the original sheet music, and finds a few good ones. Bassist Mark Hodgson, easily anybody's match in the dexterity department here, takes no solos I noticed (sorry if I'm wrong), which I think should be remedied, but there's always the next CD for that. I like Hamilton's playing but I get a sneaking suspicion he's taking up occasional room Bruford might have grabbed in his less 'edited' days, such as in the rescored 'Bruford band' title tune from their second album ONE OF A KIND. Nice south-of-the-border feel, though: gave that busy theme somewhere to go. Lovely melodies throughout! And Hamilton does grow significantly on one over the course of the CD: a certain sense of devil-may-care mischief intrudes, once the purview of Django Bates when he was an Earthworker.

By the way, since I asked, there is more that the bass-drums-keys-sax quartet has to say, and 'how' is the question I didn't ask. The artist just has to make it sound easy without the music actually being so, and there has to be an individual if not innovative group voice. Oh, yeah, and we have to want to play it again. Three out of three, Mr. Bruford!

by Kenneth Egbert