Bill Bruford has always been a jazz drummer at heart. It showed on those early YES records, with such songs as 'America', 'Something's Coming', and 'Everydays'. With the latest edition of his band, Earthworks, he brings that to the fore. While many in the packed crowd came to see him based on his reputation with such bands as King Crimson and his 70's rock/fusion band, Bruford, they were in for a pleasant surprise with his current 'British jazz' quartet. This was the sixth date on a 16 date coast-to-coast swing across the States.
Opening with 'Revel Without A Pause', from their latest CD, The Sound Of Surprise (DGM), Bill and his band of talented young Englishmen came out swinging. Saxophonist Patrick Clahar was a marvel on tenor behind the leaders shifting rhythmic background. A graduate of the Berklee School of Music in Boston, his solos were inventive and melodic, weaving their way around the listener's ear.
This all-acoustic sax-piano-bass-drums line up is more traditional than the first Earthworks with its synths, electric bass, and Bruford's hybrid electric/acoustic drum kit. Back then, he played what he termed 'chordal' drums, triggering melodic pitches and chords from his drum pads. This time out he played an all-acoustic kit set up uniquely with the drums set flat on either side of him, and the cymbals poised in front. He was able to negotiate intricate rhythmic patterns with a minimum of movement.
'Come To Dust' featured pianist Steve Hamilton who showed a great melodic sense. His opening solo interlude was lush, bringing to mind the late Bill Evans. Having informed the crowd that it was not a 'drumistic' song, the slow ballad was gently pushed along by Bruford's mallets on toms and cymbals. The Latinesque 'Footloose And Fancy Free' showed Hodgson to be a young bassist with great promise. He had then unenviable job of keeping up with Bruford's shifting pulse (in five no less). He was both fleet and muscular, often letting harmonics fly off his strings like a shower of sparks. Standing center stage, he was a marvel to watch as he matched the drummer note for note.
A humorous moment happened when an audience member shouted out 'Roundabout,' in reference to the 1971 hit song for YES. Bill made light of it by pretending to explain to his young band members (all under 30) that he 'used to be in this pop band years ago."
The closing song, 'Bridge Of Inhibition,' was the only hold over from the old band. Devoid of the electronics, it actually drove harder as the band negotiated the tricky unison middle-Eastern flavored melody. It was also a vehicle for the leader's feature solo. Bruford has always been a drummer of melodic inventiveness and his solo did not disappoint. Like the jazz masters Max Roach and Joe Morello, who he looked up to in his youth, he played a solo that was based on repeating phrases and a melodic structure. There was no random bashing here, but drums-as-song.
After two years of touring around the world, Earthworks is a very assured and confident band. One only hopes that Bruford manages to keep his very talented young musicians with him for many years to come.