Backstage Pass: Bill Bruford – Always close to the edge

Truly one of the most innovative, forward-thinking drummers in progressive-rock, or for that matter, any genre, Bill Bruford is a mad scientist of percussion, always willing to experiment and explore new musical frontiers.

Rooted in jazz, with an independent streak a mile wide, the self-taught Bruford began his professional music career in 1968 and soon became a force in the growing art-rock movement.

After a brief, ill-suited dalliance with blues-rockers Savoy Brown, Bruford hooked up with Yes in the late ’60s, manning drums for The Yes Album, Fragile and Close To The Edge. Feeling that he’d reached the end of his creative tether with Yes, Bruford then moved on to King Crimson, playing with fellow avant-garde evangelist Robert Fripp in various incarnations of the group. He would also record with other giants of progressive rock — like Gong, Genesis and U.K.

Over the years, Bruford has recorded with people like Patrick Moraz, Tony Levin, Al Di Meola and Larry Coryell; released four albums with his own band, Bruford; and started the ever-evolving, jazz-oriented Earthworks project. These days, Bruford is heeding a call to return to jazz and continuing his work with Earthworks. He shows no sign of slowing down.

You had joined Savoy Brown, and then a few weeks later, you were recruited to play with Yes. How did that come about?

Bill Bruford: I was fired from The Savoy Brown Blues Band after three nights for fiddling around with the rhythm. I met (Yes bassist Chris) Squire and (Yes vocalist Jon) Anderson, I think, through a trade ad in a magazine — either they answered an ad I’d placed, or I answered one that they had placed. I seem to remember meeting them in a Soho drinking club called La Chasse and playing a gig that night in Deptford, East London, which mostly consisted of Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” played several times over.

With progressive-rock just starting to take off and the psychedelic period coming to a close, the late ’60s/early ’70s were an interesting time in music. Did you feel a change was stirring?

BB: The scene was in perpetual change and permanently fluid. After The Beatles, everything was up for grabs. The only rule I could find was that we shouldn’t sound like the other guys. My personal agenda was, and remains, to do with trying to make a contribution on the my instrument — drums — in the wider sense. My interest in the Summer of Love, psychedelia, student riots and lysergic acid was therefore marginal, at best.

Moving from The Yes Album to Fragile, Yes experienced a lineup change that brought Rick Wakeman into the band. What do you see as the major differences between those two albums, and what did you want out of Fragile musically?

BB: The band was groping around in the dark, feeling its way towards something, which really came into focus with “Heart of the Sunrise.” This was an early template for a multi-leveled, multi-tiered mini-epic of classic proportions. Since we didn’t know really what we were looking for, it was a slow process of discovery which took three albums and the appearance of Rick to find, and it finally appeared fully formed on that track. From that template sprang Close to the Edge.

“Roundabout” was very different from what made the charts back then. What were your impressions of that song initially?

BB: We had no idea about charts. Atlantic had sent over from the U.S. one of their top producers, Tom Dowd, who had produced dozens of great hits from Aretha on down. He stuck his head ’round the door of the sessions for The Yes Album in London, stayed for about 30 minutes, and left without saying anything much.

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