Bill Bruford's Earthworks/Peter Erksine's ECM Trio

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 18 Jul 98

Bill Bruford's Earthworks/Peter Erksine's ECM Trio
Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, UK
Saturday, 18th July 1998, 19:45-22:30

Bill Bruford's Earthworks:
Bill Bruford: drum kit
Patrick Clahar: saxophones
Steve Hamilton: keyboard
Geoff Gascoyne: upright acoustic bass, five-string electric bass

Peter Erskine's ECM Trio:
Peter Erskine: drum kit
John Taylor: piano
Palle Danielsson: upright acoustic bass

A tremendous double-bill opened the 'Rhythm Sticks' Festival at London's South Bank on Saturday: Bill Bruford's new Earthworks line up, in the midst of a (first) European tour, and Peter Erskine's legendary ECM trio, fresh from Chicago that morning.

Bruford's latest (and more acoustic-oriented) version of Earthworks took the stage first, offering an hour-long set. They kicked off with a slightly nervous "My Heart Declares a Holiday" from the first album, and a somewhat re-worked "Pigalle" from All Heaven Broke Loose. The band then moved more confidently into two numbers from Bruford's Discipline album with Ralph Towner and Eddie Gomez ("two musicians you might have heard of", quoth Bill, with studied faux modesty!) - the title track, "If Summer Had Its Ghosts", and "Forgiveness". There was also a lively new number, "Never the Same Way Once", which lived up to its title with idiosyncratic melodic and metronomic takes on some standard jazz ploys, including a double counter-rhythm at one point. A tune from Bruford Levin Upper Extremities ("Fin de Siecle", I think, but I haven't checked yet) was also included, and the band concluded with a rousing finale of "Bridge of Inhibition".

The first and last numbers, particularly, tested the new musical strategy of Earthworks, which is a move away from the integration of a Simmons electric drum kit into an eclectic jazz context, and back to a more traditional semi-acoustic quartet format. The chordal patterns which had previously been Bruford's were, unsurprisingly, picked up by the keys player, leaving Bill free to improvise new layers of polyphonic trickery on his modest, stripped down (and very yellow) standard kit - especially, for instance, in the 'bridge' section of the last track: the uninhibited 'inhibition' was played much as on the album.

I missed the anarchic e-flat tenor horn intrusions of Bates somewhat, and the band's tonal palette is not quite as rich as it was. But what has been lost in those departments is compensated by a less cluttered 'orchestral' agenda, and the necessary re-interpretation of old Earthworks numbers helps breathe new life into them. Here is creative music constantly on the move.

It quickly became evident, of course, that Bill has chosen another set of stunning musicians to succeed the previous line-up of Django Bates (now with a string of solo piano albums, an Argos orchestral CD, a concerto for Joanna MacGregor, more Human Chain semi-improv work and a 'big band', Delightful Precipice, under his belt); Iain Ballamy (he's produced two excellent albums from his own sax-led quartet, a commission for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and collaborates, alongside Bates, with quirky punk-jazz anti-hero Billy Jenkins on Still Sounds Like Bromley); and bassist Tim Harries (doing sessions and touring with Steeleye Span).

The 'new boys' are Patrick Clahar on saxes, Steve Hamilton (from the US) on electric piano, and Geoff Gascoyne on upright acoustic and five-string electric basses. Of the three, I'd only heard Gascoyne before. He's been around the London jazz scene for a couple of years now, having graduated from the Guildhall School of Music. Amongst other things, he's played in a number of line-ups at the Vortex bar in Stoke Newington, which specialises in left-field, improv-oriented 'post-jazz'. His interesting style is perhaps best described as 'legato interruptus'!

Hamilton has a crisper, lesser muddy keyboard technique than Bates - and I suspect he's academy trained too. All three of the recruits were using sheet music for the core of the numbers, which they've only been playing for a relatively short period of time - and there aren't that many untrained performers who can sight read at that kind of pace and level of complexity.

As for Clahar - well, he's outstanding. Breathtaking technique, a very rich harmonic language, and a player who adapts readily to quite different styles of playing. No doubt he'll be as stratospheric as Bates on the new jazz and contemporary music scenes in a very short while.

Altogether, then, a stimulating and promising set from Earthworks. Not quite as fluid and easy as their illustrious predecessors perhaps (only Bruford looked like he was really enjoying himself, the others were understandably rather intense), but there was more than enough evidence here to indicate that this band is well capable of taking the Earthworks tradition in new and exciting directions. I can't wait to hear their first recorded offering. And as far as Bruford is concerned - well, he continues to mature as a deeply musical performer. A few minutes listening to him in a context like this and you realise just how wasted his skills are in a band like Yes, and how extraordinarily silly it is to label him "just a drummer".

Having said that, one must also add that Peter Erskine's ECM crew are in a different league yet again. I wouldn't say they blew Earthworks away - and indeed their style of modal, dynamically subtle mainstream-into-freeform jazz is different enough from that of Bill's outfit to make strict comparisons difficult. But even so, I'm sure Bruford himself would be the first to admit that Erskine is one of the four or five finest kit drummers on the planet at the moment, and that this trio evidence a level of assured nuance and improvisational dexterity which the new-bloods of Earthworks might find pretty hard to live with: which is why they were all in the audience for the Erskine set, listening very hard.

The other members of the Trio are the superlative Englishman John Taylor on piano and the ruddy-faced Swede Palle Danielsson on acoustic bass. These guys are so far ahead of the game that adjectives fail me. The spell-binding hour or so they offered a very privileged audience included several pieces from their last three ECM albums and two considerably re-worked Cole Porter numbers, one rescored and improvised in twelve-tone format! Peter Erskine nudges, caresses, massages and only occasionally beats his kit into a swelter of sounds; and the aural quality of this (properly acoustic) outfit is stunning. The range and subtlety of dynamics far outstripped anything Earthworks (by contrast somewhat flat and hard) could offer. Electronics has undoubtedly contributed a lot to music, but at the end of the day (for me, at least) nothing can compete with a Steinway, a vintage upright bass, and a large drum kit used with economy, restraint and sheer good taste. Awe-inspiring.

Bill Bruford cheekily reminded the audience at the beginning of this concert that there was "another guy called Herbie, who plays a bit of piano" on offer at the Barbican Centre in London that evening. He might also have added the different but equal attractions of Hugh Masekela next door at the Royal Festival Hall - there as part of an all-day musical feast celebrating Nelson Mandela's 80th birthday, some of which I was lucky enough to catch. That said, those of us who heard Earthworks and Erskine at the QEH (a reasonable but not packed audience of around 2,000) had a rare treat which most of us wouldn't have swapped for any of the competing delights on offer. The only sad thing during the whole evening was the sight of a number of people (including five or six who'd been nattering about Yes and Crimson behind me) leaving during the early part of the Erskine set. Presumably, as Bruford has observed in other contexts, they weren't in the presence of something which they quite recognised as music. To which one can only say: how sad, but how lucky for the rest of us.

Simon Barrow, 20.7.98

Simon Barrow runs the NewFrontEars website, covering artful and demanding music in many genres.

Originally posted to

Return to Main Page.