Showing the Flag
Bruford & Moraz | Bill Bruford, Patrick Moraz
Dissecting an unusual fusion
One of the most exciting aspects of electronic music is the way in which it allows you to become a one-man band... but what approach do you take with a pair of musicians who are equally happy in or out of the electronic medium, but who have currently chosen it as the format for a compact but powerful TWO-man band?
Because that's exactly what Bill Bruford, percussionist for King Crimson, UK, his own band Bruford and many other top bands, and also keyboardist Patrick Moraz, currently with the Moody Blues and ex-of Refugee and Yes, have done on their new album Flags on EG Records. It's the follow-up to their critically acclaimed Music For Piano and Drums, which employed only acoustic piano and drums, and uses a less limited but fascinating range of instruments - electronic and acoustic drums, a Steinway piano, and the amazing Kurzweil sampling keyboard.
I started by asking the duo whether they felt the album was in the same spirit as Piano And Drums. Patrick got in first in this one, but as you'll see, both members of the duo are well aware of what they're trying to achieve and more than happy to talk about their aims and methods.
PATRICK "There is a sense of continuity in that all the compositions were done in about the same length of time as for the first album. It took about four to five days to get it all arranged and recorded because we were on a strictly limited budget in terms of studio time. But there was much more post-production and mixing work on this album, and we felt we've progressed enormously as a group".
As on the first album, there's an enormous amount of variation in style on Flags. Was this one of the main aims of the album, or partly a result of the machines used?
BILL "We feel that machines should work and that people should think. Whatever we record and whatever equipment we use, it's just an extension of our thinking. And in fact the variety on the album is only a small portion of what we could have done. We have no boundaries as a group; like any other group you have to get to know each other, because we do have to make fast decisions in the studio. Usually in that situation you have a group with one or two main guys and a bunch of passengers, but in this group you've got a pilot and a co-pilot - or rather, two co-pilots!"
PATRICK "The proof of this is that in the live situation we can still continue the dialogue we have when we're making decisions in the studio. We can decide spontaneously when one of use should take a solo passage, and although we've been playing some pieces for some time it's still even more direct and dynamic live than on record".
There's so much variation on Flags that a track-by-track approach seemed the most rewarding. The opener is Temples Of Joy, and Patrick mentioned that this is in fact a reworking of an older track.
PATRICK "This comes from a ballet I wrote in 1979 called Primitivisation. On stage sixty percent of our music is improvised, but this one set number we know we can turn to and we'll enjoy playing it. It's complex, it's fast and it has to swing".
BILL "It's very Latin-influenced, which comes from Patrick's time in Brazil rather than from my background [v. the Moraz solo album The Story of I] so I had to learn that style".
PATRICK "We can faithfully reproduce the up-tempo feel of the track live, and although we've simplified the instrumentation (the original version used a whole group of Brazilian percussionists) Bill can reproduce their sound by the way he places accents in the percussion parts. In any case the live situation makes up for any simplifications we have to make".
Split Seconds is all about the fast decisions made in the group's improvisational style.
BILL "It has a composed head section but it's otherwise all improvised, lying somewhere between modern classical music and jazz. The track has no fixed tempo at first, and in the percussion passages you may think there's no melody. But in fact all this talk about drummers being able to play tunes on the new Simmons kits neglects the fact that drummers hear tunes in their heads all the time; they're indefinitely pitched but they are still tunes. In the middle section of the track there's a fixed tempo, but it's still improvisational, and in that sort of music whatever you hear from a musician will always be the inner man coming out".
The third track on the album's called Karu, and Patrick points out that "this one's inspired by someone who had a great influence on me. The track's composed, but I didn't notate it - I can keep a piece like this in my head once it's complete. This is in addition to the concept I use for my Future Memories albums, which are all live "instant compositions". On this track I've overdubbed a couple of sounds from the Yamaha GS1 - bells and so on - and the flute section is written as for my friend Syrinx, who played Pan Flute with me on an album called Co-Existence. In fact I've had the GS1 MIDI'd now but I don't know exactly who did it - the roadies organised that.
"Imprompu, Too! is another Brazilian-influenced track derived from the Shorinho style, a word taken from the verb for "crying". Patrick promised his Brazilian friends that he'd compose a "Progressive Shorinho" and play it with a great partner - "originally I was going to record it with [keyboardist] Chick Corea, but we couldn't organise it in the end. I though I'd never be able to play it, but Bill heard the working tapes and forced me to record it. He said "give me a cassette and I'll have my part ready in the morning", and he did!
BILL "In fact this is the most difficult track on the album because it has very precise phrasing but has to sound like it's just thrown away! I was sweating buckets doing this one".
Patrick describes his influences as "trans-cultural", and appreciates Bill's input derived from the British school or drumming, which he says is "all technique and no heritage". Patrick, being Swiss, describes his early influences as accordions and alpine horns - which may explain why he spent so much time in Brazil and became interested in the wider possibilities of electronic instruments! Some of this trans-cultural approach comes out in the title track Flags, but in fact Bill explains that it's really an anti-political track - "our version of 19, if you like!"
Side two of the album opens with Machines Programmed By Genes, the most obviously electronic of the tracks (there's even a vocoded lyric in there somewhere) and one which harks back to Patrick's computer-influenced single How Basic Can You Get? Since the Kurzweil interfaces to the Apple Macintosh computer, Patrick's now constantly in touch with Apple and is looking forward to working with the user-sampling options of the Kurzweil. Machines, though, uses standard sounds improvised over a simple riff, which Patrick would eventually like to replace with an entire vocoded vocal track. "I did much better vocoder work than Herbie Hancock on Primitivisation with a Sennheiser vocoder, and then I showed the techniques to Stevie Wonder and he was very influenced by them."
"The Drum Also Waltzes is a solo originally recorded by Max Roach, which Bill describes as "a little metaphor for all the major techniques of rhythm - call and response, climax, tension and release, space, poise and balance, and dynamics." The original version had all these but I wanted to record it in a 1985 young white guy style. Unaccompanied percussion has fallen into disrepute because of all the boring solos you used to hear, but this is in fact a complete "tune" based on a simple waltz time."
Bill's Simmons kit doesn't overwhelm the acoustic percussion on the album by any means, and in fact he says he'd prefer to go out and buy a timbale then have a chip which sounded something like one. He's attracted to percussive sounds which aren't too specific, and likes the Kurzweil's percussion - "often on the album you can't tell what's Kurzweil and what's Simmons." Bill's kit is partly comprised of two Simmons SDS7 units, but he hasn't yet looked at the new MIDI-equipped kits, feeling that there's a definite danger of technology moving on before the drummer can master even a handful of the techniques available to him.
On Infra Dig the drums in fact initiate the tune, but tend to make it difficult for the keyboard player!
PATRICK "There's one beat in the wrong place here which makes it extremely wicked! That was the first discipline Bill put on me, it made me feel as if I was tripping up as I walked. I hated the rhythm figure at first, but that word isn't really in our vocabulary - it just meant an opportunity for us to stretch ourselves".
A Way With Words shows yet more musical techniques which have gone out of fashion in an era of bland pop songs. It's an improvised track, or rather an "instant composition", and is very much in the tradition of modern experimental classical music.
BILL "There is a theme though - the percussion pitch follows whatever pitch the keyboard is playing at the time, with the Kurzweil playing an upright bass sound. We've done this one live forty or fifty times in a slightly different form, but we still did seven or eight takes in the studio. Even if you're improvising the music, you know when it's right and when it isn't".
The closing track, Everything You've Heard Is True, keeps the rhythm fairly constant but places varying keyboard parts over it.
PATRICK "There's a children's tune, a call and response passage with the bass, all sorts of parts. It's not an original technique, but Bill says he's as happy with a verbal description of what to do on a track as with thousands of notes. I didn't like this concept at first but I improvised over the rhythm, Bill criticised what I'd done and tried to infuriate me to make me do things I'd never otherwise do. Like playing in front of an audience in a tiny club!"
In fact the clubs, such as Ronnie Scott's jazz club in London, are where the duo are practising their pieces before setting off on a major tour of the US. Patrick's also working on a Moody Blues album, which promises to be their best yet; on a piece for ITT called Modular Symphony which will become the basis of a new Future Memories album to be recorded at the Montreux Bay Aquarium in a concert sponsored by Apple and Hewlett-Packard; and with Bill on pieces for DIGICON next year.
PATRICK "DIGICON's going to be very exciting. It involves the first satellite link of two studios using MIDI and we'll be playing with Tony Levin in Vancouver, David Foster and Toto in Los Angeles and Allan Holdsworth. That's on 16th August, a year in advance of the conference itself, and I'll perhaps take along a second Kurzweil for the show. Then we're immediately going on a tour of the US and Canada up to September".
Clearly the duo are going to be very busy over the coming months. Flags deserves all the critical acclaim gained by their previous album, but is much more accessible, working through many of the same techniques and plenty of new ones but using a much wider sonic palette. There are some stunning instrumental sounds from the Simmons and Kurzweil, although one sound you won't hear is the Kurzweil's renowned grand piano - those parts are all taken by the Steinway. Listen to the album with an open mind and you may not believe your ears.
Interview by Tony Mills