By Jason M. Rubin
Legendary percussionist Bill Bruford’s recorded output reveals him to be a restless innovator who went from one band to another so he could learn more about his instrument and about himself as a musician.
It’s been pretty well documented that rock drumming is one of the most hazardous occupations known to man. It’s not for nothing that the fictional band in This Is Spinal Tap featured numerous drummers, each of whom met his demise in a bizarre manner. But over the last few years, the genre of progressive rock in particular has lost a number of notable percussionists to illness and/or death — or, in one instance perhaps, ennui.
The attrition probably began about 20 years ago, when Gentle Giant drummer John Weathers reportedly gave up the drums because of arthritis in his foot. He was eventually diagnosed with a condition called spinocerebellar ataxia, a degenerative neural disease. In May 2005, former Gong drummer Pierre Moerlen died of natural causes, though he was only 52. Rush’s Neil Peart died in 2020 of brain cancer; the following year, cancer also claimed the life of Graeme Edge of The Moody Blues. Phil Collins of Genesis spent the band’s farewell tour, which ended this past March, looking frail and weak, seated in a chair singing while his son took over on drums. And just last week, Yes drummer Alan White died at age 79 after a brief illness — though he had not been well for several years. A second drummer was often on hand to support him through shows.
Perhaps the most shocking loss to progressive drummerdom, though, was that of Bill Bruford, whose star-making stints in Yes and King Crimson were augmented by briefer stops in Genesis, Gong, National Health, and UK. Considered by many critics (including me) to be at the top of the progressive percussion pyramid, Bruford was still playing at a very high level when, in 2008, he announced he was retiring. He subsequently wrote an autobiography, which was published in 2009; earned a PhD in Music from the University of Surrey in 2016; and in 2018 published Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer, drawn from his doctoral thesis. Nothing has been made public to indicate that he isn’t still physically and mentally capable of playing drums. He has simply decided — due mainly to market forces and competing priorities — not to.
Bruford remains active in the marketplace however. He has just released a six-CD career retrospective, Bill Bruford: Making a Song and Dance, that charts the remarkable breadth of musical adventures he undertook over the course of four decades. Anyone who has read his autobiography knows that Bruford is off the scale in terms of artistic integrity, and that means he doesn’t pander to his audience, nor does he tend to give them what they expect. Many is the time I bought a new CD of his, listened once and felt disappointed because there were no dramatic drum solos or features — yet found more subtle treasures upon repeat listenings. So it is with this boxed set, which he compiled and produced himself. Two quotes from the handsome little hardcover book included stand out:
“Those who don’t care for drum solos will be happy with this collection.”
“Nobody said this collection had to be easy listening.”
Of course, there are many examples of his spectacular drumming ability to be enjoyed over the six discs, but the quality of his own contribution was not, apparently, the overriding criterion for what made it on the collection — and what didn’t.
Case in point: Out of five albums he recorded while in Yes, only three tracks are included, and one of them, “And You And I,” is a prog ballad in which Bruford’s drumming would be best praised for its understatement. Its inclusion can perhaps be explained by the fact that Bruford has a rare (for that time period) composer’s credit on it. But why not choose the uptempo, rhythmically exciting “Siberian Khatru” from the same album instead? And why nothing from the first two discs, when the young band was finding its collective voice?
By contrast, his three different stints in King Crimson are very well represented, in both studio and live recordings from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. It is well known that Bruford preferred his tenure in Crimson to his time in Yes, but I would have selected at least a couple more Yes tracks that show his early stylings. Similarly, the inscrutable Bruford doesn’t have many kind words in his autobiography about the band UK, but his brilliant playing on their eponymous debut is represented with just a single song, “Nevermore,” which is more of a showcase for guitarist Allan Holdsworth and keyboardist/violinist Eddie Jobson.
Another quirk is that the discs are compiled thematically, not chronologically, so King Crimson tunes pop up in discs 1, 2, and 6. That’s actually a pretty good matrix for someone like Bruford, who at various times went back and forth between rock and jazz projects, between fronting a band and serving as a sideman, and between larger and smaller ensembles. Disc 5, for example, is titled “The Special Guest” and features some of his drums-for-hire work with artists such as Roy Harper, Al Di Meola, Kazumi Watanabe, David Torn, and ex-Yes bandmates Steve Howe and Chris Squire. Here, too, I wish he had chosen at least one more track from the three Howe albums he guested on, as well as one of the two songs he recorded for Rick Wakeman’s first solo album. In addition, “Sparkle,” an explosive track he recorded in 1984 with Jamaaladeen Tacuma, really belongs here as well. For that matter, Bruford often chose live versions over studio takes for this boxed set, so why not include “The Cinema Show” from Genesis’s Seconds Out?
No doubt Bruford would laugh and sneer at my petty grumblings. Of course, I wish I had been enlisted to compile the tracks. But it’s his name on the box set, not mine, so all I can say is that six discs are clearly insufficient to live up to the recording’s subtitle, “A Complete-Career Collection.” But what is here is beyond reproach and, despite his smug antidrum solo statement, a live 1995 version of King Crimson’s “Indiscipline” (from 1981’s Discipline) features a monstrous one. He is also caught soloing on a few Earthworks tracks. Further, in most all the cases, when he chooses a live version over the studio original, it is indeed a better choice. I also appreciated hearing two tracks from a 2009 collaboration I wasn’t even aware of, with a group called Piano Circus, featuring six pianists. (So where is his 1987 work with the New Percussion Group of Amsterdam? Never mind.)
In sum, the totality of Bruford’s recorded output reveals him to be singularly significant, a restless innovator who went from one band to another so he could learn more about his instrument and about himself as a musician. The only times he ever blatantly chased a buck (Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe; the Yes Union fiasco), he did so to fund his jazz band, Earthworks. So, in the final analysis, Making a Song and Dance provides a fantastic survey of Bill Bruford’s peerless career and his prodigious percussive talents. Though inactive as a professional musician, he continues to inspire and astound with the rich trove of recordings he made from 1968 through 2007.
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for more than 35 years, the last 20 as senior creative associate at Libretto Inc., a Boston-based strategic communications agency where he has won awards for his copywriting. He has written for Arts Fuse since 2012. Jason’s first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. His current book, Ancient Tales Newly Told, released in March 2019, includes an updated version of his first novel along with a new work of historical fiction, King of Kings, about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Jason is a member of the New England Indie Authors Collective and holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.