Bill Bruford is one of those few drummers to have inhabited the rock music arena over the last fifty years who commands the sort of fanbase who will follow him whoever he plays with and whatever genre he chooses to visit. However, it is also conversely true that he has had fingers in so many differing musical pies over the years that an even bigger group of listeners will know a chunk of his output while remaining in the dark about other large swathes of it. It is for this reason that this expansive six-disc set offered a fascinating appeal – being familiar with the established prog names of Yes, King Crimson, UK and his own Bruford band, plus his time with the reconstituted Anderson Wakeman Bruford Howe, the likes of his Earthworks jazz collective and his many short-term partnerships were something I had intended for years to explore further, but owing to a combination of time and not knowing the best places to start, it never happened. With this set, it is laid out before you to enter and wander around the different rooms of his career mansion as it were. It is certainly a varied collection, and contains a lot of music – though whether it is a balanced collection is up for debate. Certainly, listeners would be advised to enter in the knowledge that it is highly likely that at least some of the material here may not be to their taste – the man who loves all of this disparate material is a man of rare breadth of taste for sure (or is Bill Bruford himself). Let’s go through the various themed discs and see what we get…
The first two discs, collectively entitled ‘The Collaborator’, will without doubt be the point at which the average prog fan feels most at home (the ‘shallow end’ of the pool if you will, with one’s feet still very much on solid ground). They essentially cover the material which features Bruford as a full-time band member, but not leader. The first disc in particular is given over to his time in Yes (three tracks) and the 1970s King Crimson (four tracks), along with a sole selection from UK, the band he was in along with Allan Holdsworth, Eddie Jobson and John Wetton for their debut album. The three Yes selections are fine in themselves (I’ve Seen All Good People, Heart Of The Sunrise, And You And I), but it is something of a surprise that nothing from the first two Yes albums is included, as that is material which may be less familiar to the more casual Yes listener. Similarly the King Crimson tracks (Great Deceiver, Fracture, One More Red Nightmare and the sublime Starless) are all good choices, though nothing at all from Larks’ Tongues In Aspic certainly raises an eyebrow. The solitary UK track is an unexpected one, in the shape of Nevermore – a good track, but one might have expected In The Dead Of Night. This disc is excellent in terms of content, but does feel a little as if it could have been expanded upon, especially given what comes later on.
The second of the ‘Collaborator’ discs moves on to the ’80s and ’90s, and is almost all given over to King Crimson material from the period – a massive eleven tracks as compared to the four on the first disc certainly shows a skewing of emphasis toward what Bruford admits is his favourite period of the band. I freely admit that it isn’t mine, and while there are several standouts here, they are a little puzzlingly chosen. Frame By Frame is a classic from the Discipline album, though it is the only studio cut from that album. Beat surprisingly gets three (Neal And Jack And Me, Heartbeat and Waiting Man, none of which are essential to these ears), while Three Of A Perfect Pair is even more surprisingly overlooked altogether, although No Warning appears on a later disc. Some of that missing material gets represented in live form, however, with impressive renditions of Larks Tongues Part Two, Elephant Talk and Indiscipline. However, it seems strange to include such underwhelming selections as Man With An Open Heart or Big Funk. For lovers of the challenging Thrak album, Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream is here for you. In the midst of this Crimson avalanche there is an isolated ABWH selection, the single edit of Brother Of Mine, which is still enjoyable enough but has not aged well. The most bizarre selection of all is tacked onto the end, being an experimental ambient piece by Piano Circus entitled The Still Small Voice, which is odd both in its positioning (Piano Circus are also confusingly lumped in on the later disc ‘The Special Guest’), but also, well, just why? I am all for being open minded towards experimental music, but this particular effort is formless, meandering and frankly tortuous to endure even once, and I have to declare on this occasion that the Emperor has no clothes! It’s about seven minutes of prime real estate which could have gone to something more from the earlier lesser represented acts, but at least it is the last cut so can easily be skipped over.
Let’s move on now to the third and fourth discs, which are both labelled as ‘The Composing Leader’, indicating a period when Bruford was a band leader rather than simply a member. First off we get four jazz-fusion cuts from his time with his self-named band Bruford (counting ‘Parts One And Two’ as a single track). After the two parts apiece of Seems Like A Lifetime and Feels Good To Me, we get the surprising inclusion of Palewell Park – surprisingly because this drum-less piece does not feature Bruford at all, though he did write it. The best of the four is probably the excellent Joe Frazier (it packs a punch, etc etc) from the album Gradually Going Tornado. It is at this point where we see Bruford following his jazz muse and dispensing with guitars entirely for the acoustic jazz of his Earthworks band. If you are not a lover of the genre, then strap yourself as it might be a bumpy ride, with a massive sixteen tracks spread over the two discs (including three from Earthworks Unlimited Orchestra, for which the stylistic difference is minimal). I must admit to not being especially drawn to pure jazz, so felt some trepidation here, but I was largely quite pleasantly surprised as there is some very good stuff on offer, especially when slanted more towards a jazz fusion style. I feared the worst when the first cut from the outfit, the bland, smooth It Needn’t End In Tears donned its comfy slippers, ran a nice relaxing bath and ventured perilously close Kenny G territory, but that style proves very much in the minority – and indeed, edgier cuts like My Heart Declares A Holiday, Temple Of The Winds and Speaking In Wooden Tongues are particularly impressive. Overall, it’s a little Earthworks-heavy for sure, but I did enjoy these discs more than I expected to as a non-aficionado, so they did their job in that regard.
Disc five is titled ‘The Special Guest’, and is dedicated to, yes, tracks on which Bruford has appeared as a guest performer. As one might expect, it’s a mixed bag with some real highs and lows. Two of those lows come right away, with two Roy Harper tracks from his album HQ. Now, Harper has always had a tendency to be someone whose sense of self-aggrandisation outstrips the actual results of his efforts, but this pairing of the terminally dull drone of Hallucinating Light and the sub-Showaddywaddy rock-and-roll pastiche of the ghastly Grown Ups Are Just Silly Children represent a creative nadir even by his patchy standards. There is better music on the HQ album, and even though Bruford played no part in the outstanding track When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease, why the lengthy and varied opener The Game wasn’t selected to replace these two dullards is baffling. Thankfully things improve straight away with a pair of selections from Chris Squire’s splendid Fish Out Of Water, in the shape of a single edit of Lucky Seven and the album’s standout Silently Falling (also billed as a ‘single edit’, but still around 12 minutes long, which would be a pretty lengthy single). Other rather nice pieces here are the Al Di Meola track Calliope, Steve Howe’s The Inner Battle and a rather interesting reworking of Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile by David Torn. I have never encountered Kazumi Watanabe before (a guitarist, in case neither have you), but the two tracks featured here are rather enjoyable, while an unexpected turn with the Buddy Rich Big Band (which is a big drumstool to fill for sure) is good fun. Beware the final two tracks on the disc, however, as Prism by Pete Luckett’s Network Of Sparks (no, me neither) is – you knew it would come – a drum solo. It does find Bruford accompanied by two percussionists, so it’s a drum solo with percussion accompaniment, but that does nothing to improve it. Finally we get Achilles Feel which is another effort by Piano Circus and which is, again, a trial to sit through. Why he was a colleague in this Circus before but a Guest now is rather odd, especially as the tracks come from the same album.
We now reach the final disc, which is the most challenging listen of them all, with the fearsome title of ‘The Improvisor’. Now, I will put my cards on the table here and declare that I am a big fan of improvised music when those involved hit something magical – as we all know, the likes of Cream, Led Zeppelin and even Deep Purple could produce moments of pure genius at times. King Crimson also produced some inspirational improvisations, but little of that is in evidence here. The biggest issue I have with the disc is that Bruford here seems to have substituted ‘free-form’ for ‘improvisation’, which is not necessarily the case at all. Four pieces with Patrick Moraz illustrate this: Symmetry is ironically one of the most asymmetrical pieces I can recall hearing, while Galatea finds the pair (on piano and drums only) actually moving away deliberately on the couple of occasions that they meet on a particularly beautiful melodic section together, in favour of playing seemingly entirely independently from each other. I would have imagined that failing to sync together in any meaningful way constitutes failed improvisation – but again, free-form music appears to be the key. There is also another appearance by the dreaded Piano Circus, with the at least cleverly titled Stalling Between Two Fools. It isn’t their worst contribution here, but that does not constitute a recommendation. There are enjoyable pieces here, such as King Crimson’s 1980s No Warning and David Torn with his Previous Man and Three Minutes Of Pure Entertainment (Guess how long that one lasts. Yes, that’s right, seven minutes and 12 seconds). The low-key Bruford-Borstlap have a couple of quite nice pieces (16 Kingdoms Of The 5 Barbarians can never live up to the title, but is nice nonetheless), but four again seems a lot. There is also another Earthworks entry, in case the previous 16 tracks weren’t quite enough, but never fear, it’s an unaccompanied drum solo. A particular gaping hole for me here is anything from the 1970s King Crimson, who were improvisors par excellence when Bruford, John Wetton and particularly David Cross were in the line-up. Something such as Asbury Park from the USA album would seem to be an obvious choice. Overall, it’s a disc for uber-fans and completists in the main.
So, to sum up, musically this is all over the map as one would expect, and there will be something here to please everyone, though conversely perhaps not anyone to be pleased by all of it. As a package it is very nice – a box containing a 52-page hardback book with notes from Bruford himself, a poster and three mini-gatefold sleeves for the discs. As far as the amount of music, well, six discs cannot be sneezed at. It is to me, however, far from balanced in selection. Three tracks from Yes, four from 1970s Crimson, one only from UK and four from the Bruford band seem criminally under-represented compared to the massive 29 tracks contributed by latter King Crimson and Earthworks between them. Bruford admits that the ’80s was his favourite Crimson period, and he has never made a secret of his abiding love for jazz, and it seems that his own preferences have been allowed to slightly overbalance the content. Still, it is a fascinating document for anyone ready and willing (and curious enough) to wander through his particularly labyrinthine career. Three things I have learned from this collection that I will take away from it: Firstly, I seem to enjoy acoustic jazz far more than I expected to, and am glad to have had that particular horizon extended. Secondly, both David Torn and Kazumi Watanabe are guitarists whose work I certainly intend to explore further. And thirdly, I never, ever plan to experience the dubious delights of Piano Circus again if it is possible to avoid it! File under: Extensive, if flawed.