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Earthworks - Heavenly Bodies

  by Adrian Janes

published: 10 / 4 / 2020

Earthworks - Heavenly Bodies
Label: Select Label
Format: N/A


Adrian Janes assesses an expanded version of a 1997 career compilation of Bill Bruford’s jazz combo Earthworks, which covers both studio and live tracks.

One of the important elements in expanding the possibilities of rock music in the late Sixties and early Seventies was the imagination and technical skill which drummers grounded in jazz, like Ginger Baker and Robert Wyatt, introduced. Bill Bruford was another of this stamp, as a vital member of Yes and various incarnations of King Crimson. Coming to believe that rock had no place (or interest) for him, Bruford returned to his musical origins and formed Earthworks. This double set samples the two main periods of the band’s existence: 1987-92, an era during which Bruford deployed electronic chordal drums, to supply an injection of both melody and percussion; and 1998-2005, when with new colleagues he became part of a classic form of jazz quartet consisting of sax, piano, bass (usually acoustic) and drums. Ironically this listener, who hoped to hear jazz infused with a rock sensibility, preferred the latter, more orthodox disc. The first, while as technically agile as might be expected, largely veers between a 1980's production sheen for music of wine bar blandness (‘Up North’, ‘Gentle Persuasion’) and live workouts which, despite having their moments, feel overlong and self-indulgent, albeit all received with enthusiastic applause. An exception is ‘Candles Still Flicker in Romania’s Dark’: dating from 1991, the title presumably reflects the quest for hope in the aftermath of the 1989 revolution, which revealed for example the scandal of children living in squalid orphanages. Django Bates’ poignant peck horn and Tim Harries’ delicate bass evoke a feeling of sober resolve in the face of such suffering, sensitively supported by Bruford’s cymbal and snare work. Also among the better tracks, ‘My Heart Declares A Holiday’ has some of Bruford’s liveliest, most inventive drumming as well as expressive, snorting sax from Iain Ballamy, while 1987’s ‘It Needn’t End In Tears’, featuring some lonely sax set against sympathetic keyboards and bass, is touching, though it still succumbs to a certain period sound. ‘Stromboli Kicks’ is something of a showcase for Bruford’s clever use of electronic drums, melodic and rhythmic all at once. ‘No Truce with the Furies’ begins the second disc with Steve Hamilton’s forceful piano motif and lyrical sax, the piano later coming to the fore as it flows over a dark bass undercurrent. Even more than the first, this version of Earthworks suggests a collective cohesion amongst the players, able to easily shift together through tempos and moods (even if these shifts don’t always seem to make immediate sense). Despite Bruford’s centrality to the band’s existence, all concerned get the chance to express themselves. The title track of ‘A Part and Yet Apart’ from 1999 has some fluent runs from Patrick Clahar’s sax and an adept bass solo by Mark Hodgson, while on 2005’s ‘Youth’ Tim Garland proves a potent replacement for Clahar, his and Bruford’s playing in particular making this one of the more dynamic pieces across either disc. The latter is part of a quintet of live tracks that complete the set, which demonstrate a confluence of economics (increasingly expensive studios), improved recording technology but above all jazz spirit, the excitement of creating in the moment. The most impressive of these are two cuts from an augmented version of the band for a 2004 New York residency, where the addition of trumpeters and extra saxophonists enrich the performances of ‘Rosa Ballerina’ and ‘Thud’, on which Chris Karlic’s throaty baritone sax is outstanding. Earthworks are probably in permanent abeyance, Bruford having retired from live performance in 2009 and now pursuing a career as an academic focused, aptly, on the psychology of creativity. (He gained a doctorate in 2016.) In his album notes he unfortunately comes across as something of a jazz snob, regarding the period when rock was at its most experimental as “a brief aberration”. This seems to me demonstrably false, although admittedly his view seems to be chiefly coloured by mainstream rock. Still, it’s a shame that he seems unaware of the experimental spirit which has maintained a place in rock, at least one strand of which, from the Pop Group to Black Midi, has acknowledged a debt to jazz. Hopefully one day Dr Bruford will lay down his pen for awhile and pick up his sticks to create himself once more.

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Earthworks - Heavenly Bodies

Earthworks - Heavenly Bodies

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