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Rhythm is his business

Whether he's leading his group Earthworks or playing with King Crimson, drummer Bill Bruford's main concern is musical interaction.

May 16, 2003|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

It's probably a tossup whether drummer Bill Bruford is as well known to jazz fans as he is to followers of such British art-rock groups as King Crimson and Yes. Which is a bit hard to understand, since he has been leading the adventurous jazz ensemble Earthworks since the late '80s, receiving consistently laudatory reviews for both its live and recorded outings.

"It's mystifying," says Bruford, who performs with Earthworks tonight through Sunday at Catalina Bar & Grill. "We've released eight or nine CDs in the past 15 years, and the last one got five stars in Down Beat. But I think it may have something to do with the way Americans view jazz from outsiders.

"It's interesting, for example, that we're the only British jazz quartet -- maybe the only European jazz quartet -- that tours the U.S. on a regular basis. But both Britain and Europe are full of great players, even though they're rarely invited -- probably much less so than Latin American artists -- to perform at American festivals and clubs. So it's probably not surprising that we're not better known."

The fact is that Bruford, who will turn 54 on Saturday, never quite fit into the standard template of the rock drummer. Even during his tenure with King Crimson, he frequently explored the role of the drummer in a musical ensemble, regardless of genre.

"We had the sort of conversations," he recalls, "that might have more typically been associated with jazz musicians. How to find a sound for the drummer? What was his rhythmic approach? Never discussed technically, always in sort of metaphorical terms, like 'Should the drummer be the terrorist in the group?' "

In the first manifestation of Earthworks, the group sound was based on a more rock-related instrument: the electronic drum set.

"I decided, rashly perhaps, that the electronic set was now a sophisticated enough instrument to use in a jazz context," says Bruford. "But I remember playing the Montreal Jazz Festival in '91 with a boatload of drummers in front of me -- Jack DeJohnette, Bernard Purdie, among others -- looking at me wrestling with this very difficult instrument with a mixture of pity and awe, thinking, 'Why has this guy taken this on?' "

Eventually, he concluded that the electronic drums did not represent a path he preferred to explore further, citing the price to be paid in the instrument's "lack of flexibility, its unreliability, its logistical impossibility."

But he also found that the establishment of the second installment of Earthworks -- with its acoustic setup -- required an even "bigger leap" than the transition from King Crimson into the original Earthworks.

"The vocabulary in this edition of Earthworks is much more jazz," Bruford says. "But jazz sprinkled with European ideas, European rhythms and a European compositional sense. You know, we British have no kind of rhythmic culture of our own. We are the most determinedly arrhythmic culture known to man.

"I hope I'm an exception. But it's a bit like if you don't grow wine, you tend to sample all the nice wines from all over the world. So I pick other people's rhythmic ideas. American jazz is a huge part of what we do with Earthworks, but there's also Balkan rhythms, Romanian rhythms, Middle Eastern rhythms."

Equally important, Bruford discounts the whole question of jazz and rock polarity.

"Is it rock or is it jazz?" he asks. "For me, that's a very tired argument. The way I see it, there are two kinds of music out there. One is computer- and studio-based, performed by people who may never play together at the same time. That's the vast majority of all popular music.

"The other is performance-based music, designed to be played spontaneously, live in front of people. That's jazz. For me, as well as for the other guys in Earthworks, that means seeing music as a social encounter, where you look another guy in the eyes across the room, say 'one-two-three-four' and the music begins. That's where my pleasure lies, for sure."

Bill Bruford's Earthworks performs tonight through Sunday at Catalina Bar & Grill, 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 466-2210.



The San Francisco Jazz Festival has announced the formation of the SF Modern Jazz Collective, a resident ensemble led by saxophonist Joshua Redman. The all-star group also includes vibist Bobby Hutcherson, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon, pianist Renee Rosnes, trombonist Josh Roseman, bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Brian Blade. The announcement, however, comes well in advance of the collective's first performances, which will not take place until March 2004, in conjunction with the SFJAZZ spring season, followed by a tour of other California locations.

The Cerritos Center has come up with an unusually diverse array of jazz and world music events for the 2003-04 season. The just-announced jazz schedule ranges from pianist Omar Sosa, veteran saxophonist Wayne Shorter and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval to emerging vocalist Paula West, multitalented Bobby McFerrin and the smooth jazz of Boney James.

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