Ode to Bill Bruford

Bill Bruford at SJU Utrecht 2008 Photo: Steven Rieder http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevenrieder/

As a young musician, no single musician had a bigger impact on my playing than Bill Bruford. On his 70th birthday, I wanted to write a quick tribute.

As a young musician who played drums in both rock bands and orchestra, I was very concerned and focused on what drums were supposed to do. When I first heard Bill Bruford’s work on Yes’s classic album, Fragile, I heard something truly unique. I learned that drumming could have personality and nuance. I learned that drummers were much more than just human metronomes (although keeping good time is vitally important). And finally, I learned that drums were valid vessels of musical expression within the framework of a band.

Bruford’s playing felt so fresh and innovative to me. I remember contemplating his choice of snare hits in “Long Distance Runaround”, and thinking to myself, “If you would have given me the music that the other band members are playing, sans drums, I would have never, in a million years, come up with a drum part like this.” The drum part felt so wrong to me, but somehow it felt so right as well.

While there is something to be said for artists that perfect their specific set of skills within their own small niche, Bruford continually sought to change and innovate. One only needs to chart his development in King Crimson- from his first contributions on Lark’s Tongue in Aspic to his later work in the Discipline era. Any drummer that can maintain an identifiable style, while completely reinventing their approach and sound, has done something highly commendable and rare.

Bruford’s body of work continued to expand over time, yet his playing style never ceased to progress and evolve. In an interview with JazzTimes, Bruford mentioned that he was amused with the title “Godfather of progressive drumming”, because, in his words, “all I ever really wanted to do was play jazz, or something close“. I would say that, if you move past the arbitrary and somewhat useless genre label of “progressive rock”, and if you specifically focus on how the word “progressive” indicates development and innovation over time, Bruford’s development as a drummer and a musician would make him a truly “progressive” drummer- rather than following set templates, he seemed to me to use the rules to create new templates. His innovative playing style and approach to music has influenced many of our current generation’s best drummers, and his body of work and research will continue to inform and inspire musicians for years to come.

Thank you, Bill Bruford, and Happy Birthday!

Enjoy one of Dr. Bill Bruford’s lectures below.

What is your favorite Bill Bruford moment? Share your favorite Bill Bruford moment in the comments.

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