“I was interested in being on stage with people who are not only comfortable with not knowing what’s going to happen next, but would rather not know”: Bill Bruford’s journey through jazz and prog

Bill Bruford
(Image credit: Getty Images)

By the time he retired, Bill Bruford’s prog CV boasted Yes, King Crimson and Genesis, among others. In 2019, a decade after bowing out, he released a box set from his jazz fusion project Earthworks, and took the opportunity to look back with Prog.

The history of music is full of passionate conflicts between rival subcultures, factions and fan tribes – some more celebrated than others. But while, say, punk’s implacable opposition to prog in the late 1970s has been well-documented, and often wildly overstated, other battles are largely forgotten.

Take the searing distaste jazz aficionados once had for rock’n’roll and its myriad stylistic offshoots. From the moment Elvis and his vulgar, backbeat-pounding friends stole the limelight from them in the late 1950s, many uncompromising fans of jazz dismissed the simple, sleazy, overhyped charms of rock as intrinsically inferior, juvenile and moronic. This continued even after rock’s desire to broaden its sonic palette saw a generation of musicians draw on numerous unorthodox influences. 

As a young teenager, Bill Bruford had particularly mixed musical heritage, with “my family’s Dansette record changer” featuring everything from Big Bill Broonzy to Sinatra to Elvis, while the BBC’s Jazz 625 TV show opened up other inspirations. “It hipped me to Joe Morello’s unhurried elegance, Max Roach’s compositional style, and Art Blakey’s explosive groove,” he says by way of explaining the evolution of his drumming style. “Couldn’t do any of it, and came out sounding like me.”

But when it came to joining bands in his late teens, a serious dilemma presented itself. “In 1968 you could like Hendrix or Coltrane, but not both,” he says. “Adequate jazz players who moved to rock – Charlie Watts, Mitch Mitchell – were held to have ‘sold out’ and were generally disowned [by the jazz fraternity],” he says. “This was as serious then as it is laughable now.”

With the simple motivation of just “trying to get a gig”, that same year he joined Mabel Greer’s Toyshop – soon to be renamed Yes – and in theory, he never looked back. But after establishing himself as one of prog’s premier percussionists with King Crimson, Gong, National Health and Genesis’ live line-up, there was an itch still needing to be scratched. By the late 1970s Bruford was veering back towards jazz, initially with the fusion flavours of his 1978 Bruford album with Allan Holdsworth, then with Moraz-Bruford’s two stripped-back but stirring albums of instrumentals, and then, from 1986, with his own quartet, Earthworks.

As he released a complete set of recordings from a band dormant since Bruford’s 2009 retirement, we wondered if he ever felt the prog sound he helped shape had things in common with the jazz he grew up with. “After Robert Wyatt there was precious little jazz in progressive rock, and Steve Howe had most of it,” he quips with typically dry wit. “Ian Anderson fashioned his flute playing after Roland Kirk, but that was about it. No musician could possibly have less jazz in him than, say, Rick Wakeman. Progressive rock owed nothing to jazz at all.”

Strong words, but while prog could take the drummer boy out of jazz, they couldn’t take the jazz out of the drummer boy. “I think from day one with Yes I was subconsciously trying to find a way back to performance with those characteristics,” he says. “Joining Crimson was a step on that path. Crimson was more interested in a European style of collective improv that had as much or more to do with timbre and sound colours than running scales through chord changes, if that’s what you think ‘jazz’ is – much of Starless And Bible Black, most of [jam-based live set] Thrakattak, tracks like No Warning and Requiem...”

By the mid-80s, he admits, “I was increasingly interested in being on stage with people who are not only comfortable with not knowing exactly what’s going to happen next, but would actively rather not know.”

After King Crimson was disbanded by the ever-mercurial Mr Fripp in 1984, Bruford was free to seek out more of those likeminded improvisers. He’d spotted multi-instrumentalist Django Bates and sax player Iain Ballamy in fast-rising British jazz collective Loose Tubes, and they in turn invited double bass player Mick Hutton to complete the foursome.

The generically correct but uninspiring monicker of the Bill Bruford Quartet was replaced with the more evocative Earthworks, and when their eponymous debut album emerged in 1987, the prominent role of Ballamy’s tenor, alto and soprano sax, alongside Bates’ freewheeling trumpet, made it abundantly clear that they were cooking in a distinctly different kitchen.

Those who showed up at Earthworks gigs hoping for a quick jazz-tinged blast of Roundabout for old time’s sake were to be disappointed. But the new outfit still managed to pull in a loyal audience, even if there might not have been a huge crossover from the prog days. “There is always a small coterie of wackos who are prepared to go to some gig they are uncertain about, or invest in an album without a guitar on it. But no guitar and no singer? That’s a challenge,” Bruford says.

“Sure, there was a drop-off in audience at the beginning as Earthworks found its feet, and we had to build back up again once it became apparent what the band was about. The US was always supportive, but South and Central America were our biggest and most appreciative audiences.”

No guitarist, no singer, no problem, but what’s striking about the early Earthworks recordings is how electronically based they are. In fact, Bruford later described Earthworks’ debut as “expensive, electronic” – probably not by Yes or Crimson standards but doubtless more carefully constructed than most jazz combos got the chance to be.

“In the 80s, jazz was at most a two-day affair,” he says. “One day to record, one day to mix and sequence, et cetera. Rock records were the opposite – days and days of getting drum sounds and so on. I wanted Earthworks to inhabit a middle ground where an intelligent young player like Django Bates could get more than 10 minutes with a fuzz box, or [producer] David Torn might introduce a young Iain Ballamy to the delights of a harmoniser – as on Temple Of The Winds. We wanted to level the playing field a bit.”

Bruford’s enthusiastic embrace of electronic drumkits didn’t always go down well with more traditionally inclined listeners, but to him it was about exploring the technology available. “That’s what you’re paying me to do,” he says. “And it could go places others couldn’t go. It was fundamental to lots of stuff – Up North, Stromboli Kicks, All Heaven Broke Loose from Earthworks; and Waiting Man, No Warning and Indiscipline from Crimson, for example.”

This was also an era when electronic music – and indeed prog of the variety King Crimson had been making in the early 1980s – was exploring all sorts of new possibilities. “There was an explosion of new sounds and machines with which to do business,” Bruford agrees. “That said, Earthworks made its jazz up out of just about anything we could find lying around. TV images of Romanian orphanages [on Candles Still Flicker In Romania’s Dark] – rave, on Splashing Out... northern brass bands on the second part of All Heaven Broke Loose, and not entirely successful stylistic blurrings of all sorts on, say, Pressure.” He could also have mentioned the alluring Parisian accordion stabs on Pigalle or the funk influences brought in with Tim Harries’ introduction on fretless bass.

Either way, this important creative outlet wouldn’t stop Bruford hopping back and forth between Earthworks and higher-profile rock projects in the years that followed, the first of which was the initially exciting but latterly disappointing (when it evolved into a supersized but underfuelled Yes) Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe project. Although he previously told Prog that his motivation for taking part in that was to push that music forward just as keenly as he was trying to do with Earthworks, he has also acknowledged that the handsome remuneration for ABWH allowed him to do more with Earthworks, which he still did in sporadic shows with the band.

“The performer is forced to conclude early on in a career,” he admits, “that the smaller, the more challenging, the more individual the musical gesture... the less it will be welcomed.” Many a modern-day progger will ruefully echo those sentiments, and after a few days snatched to record Earthworks’ 1991 album All Heaven Broke Loose, Bruford found the Yes reunion project disintegrating, with a particular low point for Bruford being the “humiliating” breakdown of “the world’s most expensive drumkit” – enhanced by two Simmons electronic kits – live at Madison Square Gardens.

Earthworks shows are described in Bruford’s diary from the time as a “relief”, but increasingly Bruford was falling out of love with the electronic percussion that had been such a trademark part of the first two Earthworks records and, to a lesser extent, All Heaven Broke Loose as well.

As he reflected in 1993 before he returned to the King Crimson fold for Vrooom and Thrak, “the rigidity of the digital drums militates against the suppleness and flexibility required for jazz performance”. By the time Earthworks reconvened again a few years later, a more acoustic approach was taken.

“In 1997 I’d just come off Thrak-era King Crimson,” he says, “and pushed samples and electronic drums as far as I wanted to. Someone at a party played me Joshua Redman’s Freedom In The Groove, which was essentially a muscular acoustic fusion that could turn on a dime, and I knew at once that Redman had opened a door Earthworks could venture through. The album [we made] was A Part, And Yet Apart: a rather lumpy way of saying too jazz for rock and too rock for jazz.”

Fans will doubtless have their own favourite era of a band that operated on and off for more than 20 years in several different line-ups, but the Earthworks Complete box set also has some highly diverting new material. The Conception To Birth CD is a particularly intriguing affair, in that it puts early demo versions of tracks next to their finished incarnations. There’s an infectious quality to shape-shifting polyrhythmic patterns on the embryonic Triplicity, for instance, but then the slicker, finished version has a beguiling groove to it too. It is then elasticated into a more urgent, excitable eight-minute shuffle on the Live In Santiago incarnation.

That track comes from the final Earthworks studio album, 2001’s The Sound Of Surprise. Their releases would be recorded live from that point on, but on January 1, 2009, Bruford announced his retirement from professional performance. He has since completed a PhD and run his own labels, Summerfold and Winterfold.

That decision to hang up his sticks doesn’t seem likely to be reversed; and while he may have ended up playing jazz partly as a reaction to the rigidity of rock’s performance culture, when asked if he thinks rock could learn from jazz’s more fluid structure and more freewheeling ways, he answers with something of a resigned shrug: “Yes, but then it wouldn’t be rock. Many musicians and listeners are comfortable with a rigid structure that delivers the entirely expected, nervous of any kind of freewheeling.”

Johnny Sharp

Johnny is a regular contributor to Prog and Classic Rock magazines, both online and in print. Johnny is a highly experienced and versatile music writer whose tastes range from prog and hard rock to R’n’B, funk, folk and blues. He has written about music professionally for 30 years, surviving the Britpop wars at the NME in the 90s (under the hard-to-shake teenage nickname Johnny Cigarettes) before branching out to newspapers such as The Guardian and The Independent and magazines such as Uncut, Record Collector and, of course, Prog and Classic Rock