Back Pages #1: Bill Bruford’s Earthworks
Bill Bruford’s Earthworks — self-titled (E.G., 1987)
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 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 I went back to “Bridge of Inhibition” occasionally at 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.