These separately packaged DVDs provide a glimpse of influential jazz & rock drummer Bill Bruford’s jazz-fusion outfit Earthworks and its transformation of style, sound and shifting personnel, spanning the 90s through 2005. And for my money, this band is one of the top-five or so, jazz units in the biz.
Bruford’s acoustic drum kit is set up on a horizontal plane, where his somewhat legendary stick control technique enables him to conserve vast amounts of energy during his infamous timekeeping and soloing exercises. Volume 2 provides color footage of the band’s performance at New York City’s Bottom Line venue with saxophonist Patrick Clahar and pianist Steve Hamilton residing as the primary soloists. Complete with knotty time signatures and compositionally oriented shifts in momentum, many of the endearing melodies are reformulated into robust forums for improvisation. Throughout, Bruford anchors the quartet with strategically placed dynamics and shadings, to complement his rather poetic soloing workouts.
Regardless of personnel changes, Earthworks signature sound features a consortium of scorching swing vamps, false endings and prismatic musical vistas. Otherwise, the cameramen provide disparate angles to coincide with the unit’s sinuous paths and zestful exchanges. With the piece "Tramontana," culled from the ensemble’s 2002 gig at Teatro Opera in Buenos Aires, bassist Mark Hodgson’s booming ostinato groove spawns a launching point for Steve Hamilton’s ascending crescendos atop a Latin tinged pulse. Here, Clahar’s edgy soprano sax lines segue into a chain of sweet-toned harmonic interludes with the pianist, firmed-up by the drummer’s massive press rolls.
One of the many surprises includes the group’s rendition of Bruford’s 70s prog-rock favorite titled "Beelzebub." During its 2002 performance at a German theater, current saxophonist Tim Garland struts his often-fiery stuff as the band morphs Scottish jig motifs into funk grooves and impossibly complex unison lines. In addition, electric bassist Lawrence Cottle and pianist Gwilyn Simcock round out the present-day lineup while adding a newer dimension to the overall aura of the band’s methodology.
Volume 1 showcases the acoustic-electric origins of the group via this live performance footage of its concerts in Germany, Japan and Bulgaria. Mega-talented keyboardist and hornist Django Bates made a name for himself during his tenure with Earthworks. Along with saxophonist Iain Bellamy, you’ll witness their meticulously engineered and largely, stunning unison phrasings, augmented by Bruford’s use of electronic drum pad-based triggering patterns.
The musicians engage in low-key swing movements while occasionally delving into a wily free-form passage, but it’s more about stately themes fused into a hybrid element of jazz and progressive-rock. On "Bridge of Inhibition," the soloists render several bars of rapidly-flowing 16th notes atop a Middle Eastern modality, all spiced with whirling-dervish like exchanges.
Nonetheless, these two volumes encapsulate Earthworks relevance to modern or in many instances, futuristic jazz. It’s thoroughly hip, captivating and unpretentious stuff. More importantly, Bruford and associates pay close attention to composition. The majority of its ongoing legacy provides a testament to the art of musical merriment, supplanted by innovation and a group-centric, community-like atmosphere. Other glowing attributes aside, these discs are, in effect, an essential audio-visual experience for Bruford’s legion of admirers or the curiously uninitiated.