Bill Bruford's new career: talking about his drumming career

Contributing Music WriterOctober 16, 2011 

  • If you go

    An Evening with Bill Bruford

    When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 19

    Where: Drum Center of Lexington, 132 Southland Dr.

    Admission: $5

    Learn more: (859) 276-1827. Drumcenteroflexington.com.

It was perhaps one of the more unusual instances of audience interaction. Seated comfortably on the second floor of the Memphis Drum Shop in December, a crowd of 60 or so watched as Bill Bruford and Phil Collins showcased their ample percussive chops in a ceaselessly energetic reading of The Cinema Show.

It was prog-rock finery at its best: alert rhythmic turns, masterful technique and a generous dose of pure performance gusto. When it ended, the crowd, quite rightly, burst into applause.

But here comes the punch line. The cheers were not for a live show, but for a 35-year-old video clip of Bruford and Collins playing on Genesis' first tour after the defection of Peter Gabriel. Collins even has a full beard and a mane of dark hair.

Bruford was in the room that night, though. Dressed in glasses and a sport coat, he resembled a college professor more than anything approximating a rock star. Just a few minutes earlier, in fact, he even was a de facto usher, welcoming patrons and directing them to their seats.

No sticks

Bruford isn't a professor these days, but he is something of a lecturer. Having, as his 2009 autobiography stated, "hung up his sticks," he is presenting multimedia presentations of his life and career. Using his memoir (The Autobiography) as the foundation, his discussion/presentation covers a life in music with the landmark prog bands Yes and King Crimson (his involvement with Genesis, alas, was limited to the 1976 tour); the extensive jazz journeys with his band Earthworks; and reflections, from business and artistic viewpoints, on the life of a working musician.

Bruford didn't touch a drum all night. He has, again as stated in the autobiography, "retired from active service" as a performing musician. But his presentation — immensely literate, unexpectedly witty and, at times, remarkably candid — offered a rare personal glimpse into an extraordinary and uncompromising musical life.

Bruford offered his presentation in just a handful of cities last winter. He returns this fall to speak again, but in only six cities. Lexington is among them. Bruford will offer his presentation Wednesday at the Drum Center of Lexington on Southland Drive. Again, the evening will not include any live performance drumming, but it will abound with stories and reflections from Bruford's four-decade career. Afterward, he will sign copies of The Autobiography.

It will be Bruford's first Kentucky appearance of any kind since a 1972 Louisville concert with Yes.

The interview

The Autobiography is not a memoir in any traditional sense. Instead of offering a chronological overview, it scatters Bruford's career into non-sequential segments, using interview questions that have been tossed his way repeatedly over the years as chapter titles. They are questions, which he states in the book's forward, that "I've spent much time and newsprint avoiding."

Among them: "Do You Just Play Anything You Like?," "Yes, But What Do You Really Do?" and "Are You Making This Stuff Up?" There is a particularly intriguing chapter "Do You Like Doing Interviews?," that reflects on the ritualistic chapter and verse of speaking to the media to promote a musical product.

Bruford doesn't disdain the press. In fact, he mentions several journalists and publications that have offered accurate and complimentary coverage of his work. But the chapter deals more with the inevitable: the repetition of questions obsessed with the familiarity and commercial visibility of an artist rather than his or her actual work.

"Just to let the public know of its (the work's) existence, let alone of any possibility of it being heard prior to a decision to actively seek it out and buy it will require hour upon hour of patient, relentless self-promotion. If your music has the sniff about it that it could actually make the label some money, then they could more or less be helpful in getting the word out, but I have long since forsaken the idea of making any kind of music that will trigger meaningful promotional dollars. So the punishment is: You're on you own, buddy. And it's going to hurt, repeating the same thing to a hundred different writers of one sort or another."

That's what Bruford thinks of interviews. Perhaps expectedly, requests for an interview with Bruford for this story fell on deaf ears.

The music

What was the music that made Bruford such an innovative percussive artist in the first place? A few obvious choices come to mind, including Yes' landmark album Close to the Edge, from 1972, and two King Crimson classics, 1974's Red and 1981's Discipline (the latter featured Kentucky native Adrian Belew).

But there also have been scores of extraordinary works that Bruford has released on his own over the decades, including the wonderful 1979 prog delicacy, One of a Kind, with his namesake band Bruford; an outstanding 1997 jazz trio session with bassist Eddie Gomez and guitarist/pianist Ralph Towner, If Summer Had Its Ghosts, (the funding and recording of which provide the centerpiece for one of The Autobiography's most insightful chapters; the ultra-fine 2002 concert album from Earthworks, Footloose and Fancy Free; and a 2007 duets outing with pianist/keyboardist Michiel Borstlap called In Two Minds.

That was the past. Still, it's a past that allows Bruford, even as a performance retiree, to conjure vivid and immensely entertaining reflections during his talks.

"For the intrepid soul who wishes to perform on a musical instrument in public, and for whom we should have the greatest respect, everything bends and changes," Bruford writes at the close of The Autobiography, "but in different rhythms."

Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.

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