Back Pages #1: Bill Bruford’s Earthworks

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Bill Bruford’s Earthworks — self-titled (E.G., 1987)

The first song I ever played on the air at KZSU was “Bridge of Inhibition” by Bill Bruford’s Earthworks.

It starts like a declaration of purpose. Hey, listeners, it’s JAZZ time.

 
But it’s also symbolic. Earthworks was a key discovery in my early explorations of jazz, bridging the gap between prog rock and what would come next.

I bought Earthworks’ self-titled album on vinyl from a short-lived Cupertino record store, where it caught my eye in a display. This was during a time when I’d been scouting for solo prog projects, picking up albums by Tony Banks and Steve Hackett and, the most treasured find of them all, Chris Squire. It intrigued me to think that Bill Bruford had formed a jazz band, so I gave it a chance.

Earthworks songs like “Thud” trace crooked melodies educated by Monk — unusual stuff that throws you off balance but becomes easy to process on a second or third listen. That’s part of what I liked about prog — the process of “decoding” a song to find out what was going on. Earthworks turned out to have just the right mix to tickle the prog and jazz portions of my brain.

My favorite tracks had bouncy melodies and odd time signatures. The 13/8 of “My Heart Declares a Holiday” is really not so complicated, but I sure loved tapping my fingers along to it, especially the bassline in the “chorus.”

earthworks-pic
Source: Discogs

Earthworks also gave me a dose of the untethered improvisation that would be in my future. “Emotional Shirt,” in particular, goes through a speedy jazz-improv stretch before plunging back into Django Bates’ heavy-handed composition. It’s not 100% free, as it’s anchored by Mick Hutton’s furious bass rhythm, but it’s still something that was just outside my grasp at the time.

Future Earthworks albums didn’t capture my attention the way the debut did. I appreciated Bruford’s synth-drum experiments, which were producing new rhythms not possible for regular keyboardists, but the ’80s were ending, and the synths were already sounding a bit dated. And the melodies on future albums generally didn’t click with me the way something like Iain Ballamy’s “Thud” did.

In that sense, Earthworks contributed to the musical restlessness — the dissatisfaction with “jazz” — that eventually led me to Tim Berne and creative music. But this wasn’t a dead end. I’m a fan of the band’s first three albums (the ones with Ballamy and Bates — Bruford had essentially co-opted their band to form Earthworks), and at KZSU, I went back to “Bridge of Inhibition” occasionally to kick off the start of Stanford’s academic quarters. If I’m ever on the air again, even for a one-off show, it’s almost certain to get a spin.

(The Back Pages series is explained here, where you’ll also find links to the other installments.)

Back Pages

I’ll be devoting a series of occasional blog posts to some of the albums that I found early in my creative-music travels.

We’re mostly talking about a period between 1996 and 2004 — in terms of when I discovered the albums, not in terms of when they were released. Some predate my conscious interest in creative music. Many of them are out of print. Some were lucky finds, others more deliberate, but all of them helped further my education in creative music and jazz.

What they have in common is that they have stories.

The very first story — the zeroth album on this list, in a sense — is Low Life: The Paris Concert (Part 1), by Tim Berne’s Bloodcount. That’s the album that really catapulted me into avant-jazz — and it’s a story that I’ve already told.

I’ll be doing 10 or 20 of these “back pages” posts at irregular intervals in the coming months or years. The first official installment is about a bridge between my prog-rock and free-jazz lives, and you’ll find it written up here.

#7: Matthew Shipp (in progress)
#6: Beaver Harris
#5: Amy X Neuburg and Men … and the Spatula of Eternity
#4: Tim Berne’s Bloodcount
#3: Keith Tippett and Andy Sheppard
#2: Toychestra and My Brief Music-Writing Career
#1: Bill Bruford’s Earthworks
Prequel: Human Feel and the Magic of Discovery
Prequel: Jim Black’s Alas No Axis