Bill Bruford’s Earthworks
Random Acts of Happiness
Drummer Bill Bruford (Yes, Genesis) founded Earthworks back in 1986 while on hiatus from the progressive rock outfit King Crimson, but many jazz listeners — myself included — are still “discovering” his brainchild almost two decades on. I first tuned in two years ago for Footloose and Fancy Free, and have since been drawn further and further into Earthworks’ back catalogue.
The live album, like Footloose, Stamping Ground (1994) and the new Random Acts of Happiness, has been a regular occurrence in the Earthworks discography, appearing after every three or four studio releases. You could even make a solid case that the live discs are the best of the lot, an argument that Random Acts of Happiness, recorded at Yoshi’s in Oakland, CA in May 2003, will certainly sustain. Here Bruford introduces clarinetist/flautist/saxophonist and Chick Corea veteran Tim Garland, effecting a slight line-up change to the Earthworks ‘Mark II’ line-up (‘Mark I’ lasted until around 1994 and included multi-instrumentalist Django Bates and saxophonist Iain Ballamy); he has retained pianist Steve Hamilton, who departed after the recording, and bassist Mark Hodgson but replaced saxophonist Patrick Clahar.
Garland’s bold but versatile presence ought to surprise and please Earthworks’ fans. He helps Bruford and his bandmates revive “My Heart Declares a Holiday,” a song that dates back to 1987’s Earthworks, giving it a fresh treatment that shakes off some of the elevator jazz sound of the original. His collaborative and solo compositions are also some of the album’s highlights. “White Knuckle Wedding,” a Bruford/Garland chart, is full of tempo and key changes, leaping from a spicy conga line anthem to a moody and menacing interlude. Taking in the whole, however, shouldn’t diminish the spots of Garland’s excellent flute playing.
Bruford is at his lightest on Random Acts of Happiness; his drumming is full of finesse. He seems to have stepped away from any and all flamboyance — an echo from his prog-rock days, perhaps — choosing instead to dazzle with subtlety and soft-spoken complexity. He made some pretty audacious claims about himself in an interview I conducted with him around the time of Footloose, at one point comparing his drumming to a Blakey/Morello/Roach fusion. But some of those assertions are justified here, as on the three-minute drum interlude “With Friends Like These.” “Tramontana,” a Hamilton/Garland composition, benefits greatly from Bruford’s rhythmic backbone. “Modern Folk” is likewise teeming with delicious little fills.
The first release on Bruford’s new Summerfold label, Random Acts of Happiness is the best Earthworks album to appear in a several years, and one of the better modern jazz albums in recent memory. Newcomers to jazz and Bruford’s work within the genre are highly encouraged to give it a listen. This is an outfit that deserves to be a household name, firmly established in listener’s minds, and no longer waiting to be discovered by curious erstwhile prog-rockers or out-of-the-loop jazz enthusiasts.
Bill Bruford: www.billbruford.com