“I’m moving in the wrong direction,” laughs veteran drummer Bill Bruford; “we’ve all heard of jazz musicians going rock to make money, but a rock musician going jazz?” As former drummer-laureate for such mega-progressive rock groups as Yes, King Crimson, and Genesis, Bruford sees his recent excursion into jazz with his new quartet, “Bill Bruford’s Earthworks,” as a natural extension of his earlier work.
“If you were a young man in London in 1968 who played well and wanted to do something exciting, you played rock. Jazz was asleep in England then because the players were not very good–just shadows of their American counterparts. Now, if you are a young man in London in 1988 who plays well and wants to do something exciting, you’ll play jazz, because rock is now asleep.
“Since the punk arrogance of the late 70s and 80s, young jazz players in England are now suddenly very good. They don’t consider themselves, nor are they, inferior to their American counterparts, just different. And they like Prince as much as they like Coltrane because no one told them that they were supposed to like one or the other.
“We have a freer, less religious view of jazz in Britain than often exists in the States. Although America originated jazz and we love you for it, we Europeans feel it is now an international art form that needs input from other nations to give it more color and to assure its continued growth. In our case, this is uniquely British jazz.”
Earthworks consists of electronic keyboards (Django Bates), acoustic bass (Mick Hutton), saxophone (Iain Ballamy), and electronic percussion (Bruford), and will be making its Ravinia debut on Tuesday. The group’s debut album, released this year on the Editions EG label, has been hailed by audiences and critics alike for its innovativeness.
“We all know what young rock musicians do with high technology,” says Bruford, “but what can young jazz musicians do with it? Can you improvise with technology? These are all questions that a band like Earthworks is constituted to ask. It may not have all of the answers, but the point is to challenge the basic assumptions of jazz. Most British groups are acoustic, so I made a deliberate choice to go electronic because we wanted to chart some new territory and have a larger palette of colors and possibilities. We incorporated upright bass for a little air, however, and saxophone for top air. No one told me it was a sin to use electronic percussion, and it seemed like an interesting idea. I can even play pitches and chords from my drum set.”
Bruford emphasizes that his approach to jazz is arrangement-oriented, rather than being the usual “bus-line jazz system where one solo musician follows another over a similar backing.”
He says, “It’s been so different and challenging. These young guys are unfamiliar with Yes, King Crimson, et al. They’ve never even heard the records that I did with those groups. Not only do they not want to be a part of Genesis, they don’t even know what it is!”
Still, Bruford is aware that a significant audience is giving his jazz a listen because of his legendary rock stature. “I’m bringing an audience with me, and there’s no question that some are dropping by the wayside, unable or unwilling to continue the journey, which is fine.
“But what I do find sad is that so much of the music we were doing 20 years ago is still saturating the airwaves. That’s sad, because it means that there’s no room on the airwaves for other new stuff. When we formed these groups, their life span was only intended as a couple of years. They were supposed to have been disposable and a brief amusement.
“Today rock is so riddled with rules and regulations and you have to make a record that sounds just like everybody else to make it. The essence of rock is now conformity, not the innovation that was once possible in that art form but is now only possible for a handful of record producers and singer-songwriters.
“So, I am totally pragmatic. I go where the music is interesting, and I don’t care what it happens to be called. What matters is that I’m playing something that excites me. Jazz has now become a reaction against the strict rules and regulations of rock with its mandatory corporate guidelines and multimillion-dollar budgets.”
And what do Bruford’s former rock colleagues think about what he’s doing? “They think I’m a little crazy, but I see many constituent members of these mega-rock groups that are simply stadium-burned. They’re exhausted and understandably tired of their own music. They may have been young once but they’re old now, and it’s not always a pretty sight to see them perform.
“I’m all for getting paid–believe me, I like money as much as the next guy. But I could only receive it if it comes from some endeavor that has real meaning to me personally and has dignity attached to it. For me, it’s a matter of survival. The way to keep your love of music is to keep playing with fresh, challenging people. Earthworks, luckily, is now supplying all that for me.”
Eafthworks performs Tuesday, June 28, in the Ravinia Festival’s Murray Theatre, 201 Saint Johns, Highland Park, 728-4642 (or R-A-V-I-N-I-A). $15 indoors, $5 lawn.