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Bill Bruford: The Boundary Investigator

The veteran of Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks, and more looks back at a drumming life spent on the lines between genres

Bill Bruford
Bill Bruford (photo: Dave McKean)

At certain points in his long and varied career, Bill Bruford has been called a rock drummer. At others, he has been called a jazz drummer. He isn’t happy about either description. “If there were a government edict that came down tomorrow that said that the words ‘rock’ and ‘jazz’ will never be permissible again, I’d be thrilled,” Bruford said. “That would give drummers like me a freer hand.”

Not that there are many drummers like him. Over the course of a 50-plus-year career, Bill Bruford has played with innovative rock bands like Yes and King Crimson, led his own experimental jazz groups—including one that operated under his own surname and another named Earthworks—and collaborated on a dizzying array of projects with players from Ralph Towner to Allan Holdsworth to Dutch pianist Michiel Borstlap. He even cut an inventive album with the Piano Circus that featured no fewer than six players on that instrument. Over the years, Bruford has created music that’s dense, raucous, and electric, as well as spare, hushed, and acoustic. Through all of it, he’s been celebrated for both his taste and his power. To illustrate the former: King Crimson’s Robert Fripp was so impressed by the drummer’s considered decision to add nothing to the band’s 1974 track “Trio” that he gave Bruford a co-writing credit. “I did contribute something,” Bruford asserted. “Silence.”

Nearly five decades later, the full arc of his career has finally found a home. Bruford recently released a six-CD box set titled Making a Song and Dance: A Complete-Career Collection that organizes his quixotic catalog in an inventive way. He anointed the separate CDs with distinct titles to distinguish the varying functions of his work on the recordings. Discs 1 and 2 present him as “The Collaborator,” evidenced by his work with Yes and King Crimson. Discs 3 and 4 capture him as “The Composing Leader,” guiding Bruford and Earthworks. On Disc 5 he operates as “The Special Guest,” a session man toiling for stars like Roy Harper and Al Di Meola. And on the final disc he plays “The Improviser,” for works he created spontaneously with players running the gamut from keyboardist Patrick Moraz to guitarist David Torn. Together, the 70 tracks underscore Bruford’s deep aversion to genre. “I’m a fence sitter,” he said, “a boundary investigator.”

Even so, clues to a hierarchy among his loves can be found in the dining room of his home in the Southeast of England. On one wall sits a framed transcription of Tony Williams’ 32-bar solo from Miles Davis’ “Seven Steps to Heaven.” “It’s a little masterpiece,” he said. “In a way, it’s quite simple. But if you look at how each phrase follows the next, it’s a logical work of art.”

Likewise, in conversation Bruford speaks with a logic and intention that betray his connection to academia. He holds a Ph.D. in music from the University of Surrey and in 2018 he published the scholarly tome Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer. Thirteen years ago, at age 59, he retired from performing, so it’s left to the new box to maintain his legacy. Speaking by Zoom from his home, Bruford talked about a career that, he says, has found him forever “in search of difference.”

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JT: What drummers served as role models for you?
BILL BRUFORD: Max Roach would be number one. Also, Art Blakey was fantastically strong for me. Tony Williams came a bit later, and then Joe Morello, because his work was effortless and economical with incredible technical ability. And he brought a drum solo into the British Top 10 with “Take Five”! How could you not fall in love with that? I was always okay with his odd time signatures. I felt I could be a bit different from other drummers if I also used different time signatures, so I was always advocating that we take a note out or add a note to the bar line.

I know you were also affected by Ginger Baker’s drumming. When did you discover it?
At 14, I watched him with the Graham Bond Organization with John McLaughlin on guitar and Dick Heckstall-Smith on sax. To see that at 14, you’re imprinted for life! I can never get away from the Graham Bond Organization album The Sound of ’65.

When you were in Yes, you got to open for Baker’s band Cream on their farewell tour. Did you meet him?
I didn’t dare say hello. He was a very scary man. So was Tony Williams. Never meet your idols! [Laughs]

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Logically, your box set opens with several Yes tracks, including “Heart of the Sunrise” from 1971. In your liner notes you write that Yes finally found its sound with that song. But that was on the band’s fourth album! What about “Sunrise” changed things?
Until then, we’d been essentially a covers group, extending the work of other people while putting in codicils and codas. Or we were doing that a bit ham-fistedly on our own work. But “Heart of the Sunrise” was fresh and original. It had all the makings of what we wanted to do in seven to 10 minutes. That was the template from which grew [the next Yes album, 1972’s] Close to the Edge. I absolutely loved that album!

But you quit Yes the minute the album was complete. Why?
Being young and romantic and arrogant—a deadly combination—I felt that, having only played with four or five people in my whole life, it was time to stretch my wings.

What was the reaction of the other members to that?  
The only guy who was horrible was the manager. [Singer] Jon Anderson gave me his blessing even though it hurt him the most.

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You left Yes to join King Crimson at a time when Robert Fripp was wholly remaking the band. The radical sound you all came up with, starting with Larks’ Tongues in Aspic in 1973, bore little relation to the style of the group’s previous incarnations. How did you devise that sound?
I’m not sure there was any conscious formulation going on. It was just the product of what comes out when you lock five quite strong-headed people from disparate backgrounds in a room and hope that they make an album before they kill each other. Miles [Davis] did a similar thing. He would just put people in a room and hope they’d get on. That can work but it can also hurt people. Luckily, I’m reasonably robust in that area.

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The music you created with Crimson relied heavily on improvisation. Was that a particularly attractive aspect coming after the very structured music of Yes?
It was very attractive, but it was forced on us in a way because we wrote very little material and because we knew we could improvise. When you gave us a stage and said, “Play something new —start a piece of music, develop it, give it shape and then conclude it effectively on your own”—we could all do that.

That era of Crimson seemed to have something in common with Mahavishnu Orchestra, which had formed the year before. Both bands featured an electric violin and ultraviolent guitar work. Did Mahavishnu present a template for you?
It was completely unconscious but we happened to sound pretty close. I don’t know why Robert selected a violinist for the other voice. He’d had two saxophone players before that. But he decided it would be a violin and two Mellotrons, which made the internal intonation in the group pretty shocking. We were quite good at shocking people!

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You mentioned Tony Williams earlier. Were his band Lifetime, and other fusion groups of that formative era, important to Crimson’s sound?
They made a huge impression. We played on the same bill as Miles in that era. And I loved early Weather Report. Me and [Crimson singer/bassist] John Wetton listened to Herbie Hancock’s Crossings and Sextant. Some people don’t get that music. I remember we were opening for John McLaughlin with Yes. I took [Yes keyboardist] Rick Wakeman out into the auditorium to hear it and said, “There’s really something going on here. What do you think?” He couldn’t hear it at all.

On Larks’ Tongues you worked for the first time with another drummer, Jamie Muir. What was that dynamic like?
Jamie was a bit older and more experienced. He gave me some powerful music lessons, for sure. But he was tough! He would say, “What are you playing that for?” I was still sufficiently young and I felt that music existed to serve me. I didn’t realize it’s the other way around. I was still showing everybody my very fast patterns or something infantile like that.

Jamie left the band shortly after Larks’. Why didn’t he fit?
Jamie had too many colors. He was like a mad painter with instruments everywhere and he wanted everything microphoned and monitored. That was not electronically possible back then. Also, rock music was too narrow to accept someone that broad. You have to do things a certain way with that music.

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Speaking of “doing things a certain way,” Fripp has a reputation for being a hard taskmaster. Did you find him to be so?
He was an unusual man with a powerful mind and an outrageous sense of humor. But he didn’t come to the rehearsals with huge charts that we were told to play. He would sketch out a ballpark plan on the back of a cigarette pack and then it was up to us, which I thought was fair and fine. At the same time, it was one of those bands where you didn’t know if it would be there at breakfast the next day. There was no security of tenure in King Crimson. 

Indeed, Fripp broke up the group three albums in, right after releasing Red [1974], which many fans thought was that band’s best. Do you agree that Red was a peak?
I do. But it was a fairly torturous album to make. Robert decided to withhold any opinion on what was going down on tape, so it was effectively left to John and myself to make editorial decisions on what we should keep and what we shouldn’t.

Do you know why Fripp killed that band?
I didn’t spend a lot of time divining Robert’s reasons for any of this. But as a player, I was disappointed. I was also terrified to be out of work.

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“Once you’ve been on a stage with a couple of guys and looked into the whites of the audience members’ eyes and tried to perform something they think is courageous or intelligent or funny and then received applause for it, you’ve bonded—like warriors.”

You soon formed another group: the fusion band U.K., with Wetton, guitarist Allan Holdsworth, and violinist Eddie Jobson. But it seemed there were two competing sensibilities in that band—the more adventurous side with you and Allan, and the more conventional one with John and Eddie. Did that make it difficult to balance the music?
The fault line was there from the get-go, so I knew that this would likely be an unstable ship. But, I thought, if we get one good album out of it, that’s worth almost anything. As it turned out, there wasn’t a second album [with the original lineup] because Eddie and John wanted to go on to become hugely famous with radio-friendly rock and I didn’t want to become famous or play radio-friendly rock.

In fact, you moved further into jazz at that point, and then wholly into it with Earthworks. Was that your way of separating yourself from the prog-rock movement you’d been so closely associated with before?
It was absolutely a way of doing that. But the big difference with Earthworks was that there was no singer. If I was forced to distinguish between types of music, one is where musicians support singers and the other is where they’re not doing that. I love singers but I didn’t want to spend my whole life with one on stage. Happily, I managed to edge away at that point and play instrumental music, which I thought was lovely.

Earthworks changed its approach radically over time, from a style oriented around early electronic drums to a more acoustic atmosphere. Was that evolution or will?
At the beginning, it was consciously focused on “I’ve got a new electronic drum kit!,” which made the band sound different. But eventually that caused all kinds of problems because of the amount of equipment necessary to cart around. These days, hybrid drum kits are a lot easier to manage. At some point with Earthworks, I came under the spell of Joshua Redman, who had a really ballsy and muscular acoustic sound. I thought, “Ah, we should refigure as acoustic—but loud acoustic.”

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The box set describes four different roles for you over your career. Is there a hierarchy among those roles for you?
I don’t think there is from a listener’s point of view. But from a performer’s point of view, I’m less good at being a studio musician. A lot of musicians play a whole lot better on someone else’s gig. I feel constrained by it. Good studio musicians, like Steve Gadd, are fabulous at producing the right thing for the right person.

My favorite role for you is as “The Improviser.”
Me too! But to come on a stage without any prepared music in front of 2,000 or 3,000 people who are ready for some entertainment requires some serious chutzpah! That’s why I included on the set things like “The Sixteen Kingdoms of the Five Barbarians” with Michiel Borstlap, who also did some work with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. That’s seven unedited minutes of “I’ll play something, now you play something.” On that recording, we got what seemed to me something like a Close to the Edge quality, something which would have taken weeks for somebody to create and write.

In your career, you’ve kept returning to work with keyboardists: Borstlap, Patrick Moraz, the Piano Circus. Why did that become a motif?
It’s interesting, isn’t it? Keyboards are percussion instruments, of course. Also, the duo environment is so easy. There’s no harmonic clash. And the economics are great. You can rent a drum kit and someone’s provided a Bösendorfer and you can just play!

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You stopped playing over a decade ago. Do you miss it?
I miss the society of musicians. Once you’ve been on a stage with a couple of guys and looked into the whites of the audience members’ eyes and tried to perform something they think is courageous or intelligent or funny and then received applause for it, you’ve bonded—like warriors. What I don’t miss is the difficulty of being a musician these days, where you’re in a race for a pair of ears to listen. The amount of time necessary to do that for a gentleman of my age is, well … I miss the drums but I don’t miss the context or the circumstances under which I would have to play them in public.

At the same time, you’ve been busier than ever chronicling your career. Two years ago, you released a 20-CD compilation of Earthworks recordings and now you have this box set. It seems that you’re eager to cement a legacy.
I must be an egomaniac for wanting this! But it’s a good piece of fortune to have lived long enough to generate music over 50 years and then wrap it up with a pink bow and a ribbon at the end. This is me saying, “That was my best shot. Now what’s yours?”

Bill Bruford: The Pilgrim’s Progress

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Jim Farber

Jim Farber, who spent 25 years as the chief music critic of the New York Daily News, currently contributes to The New York Times, The Guardian, Billboard, Entertainment Weekly, and many other outlets. He is an adjunct professor at NYU, as well as a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award, for pieces which appeared in the New York Daily News, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone: The ’70s.