talking drums

It was perhaps the one of the more unusual instances of audience interaction. Seated comfortably on the second floor of the Memphis Drum Shop last December, a crowd of 60 or so watched as Bill Bruford and Phil Collins showcased their ample percussive chops in a ceaselessly energetic reading of The Cinema Show.

It was all prog rock finery at its best: alert rhythmic turns, masterful technique and a generous dose of pure performance gusto. At its conclusion, the crowd, quite rightly, burst into applause.

But here comes the punch line. The cheers were not awarded to a live show, but to a 35 year old video clip of Bruford and Collins playing on what was Genesis’ first tour following the defection of Peter Gabriel. Collins even possesses a full beard and mane of dark hair.

Bruford was in the room that night, though. Dressed in glasses and sport coat, he resembled a college professor more than anything approximating a rock star. Just a few minutes earlier, in fact, he even served as a de facto usher welcoming patrons and directing them to their seats.

No Sticks: While Bruford isn’t a professor these days, he is something of a lecturer. Having, as his 2009 autobiography stated, “hung up his sticks,” he today is presenting multi-media presentations of his life and career. Using his memoir (aptly titled The Autobiography) as the foundation, his discussion/presentation covers a life in music with the landmark prog bands Yes and King Crimson (his involvement with Genesis, alas, was limited to the 1976 tour), the extensive jazz journeys with his band Earthworks and reflections, from both business and artistic viewpoints, on the life of a working musician.

Bruford didn’t touch a drum all night. He has, as again stated in the autobiography, “retired from active service” as a performing musician. But his presentation – which was immensely literate, unexpectedly witty and, at times, remarkably candid – offered a rare in-person glance into an extraordinary and uncompromising musical life.

Bruford offered his presentation in just a handful of cities last winter. He returns this fall to speak again, but in only six cities. Lexington is among them. The drummer will offer his presentation at the Drum Center of Lexington on Southland Drive on Wednesday. Again, the evening will not include any live performance drumming, but it will abound with stories and reflections from Bruford’s four-decade career. He will also sign copies of The Autobiography following the talk.

Aside from a 1972 Louisville concert with Yes, this will be Bruford’s first Kentucky appearance of any kind.

The Interview: The Autobiography is not a memoir in any traditional sense. Instead of offering a chronological overview, it scatters Bruford’s career into non-sequential segments using interview questions that have been repeatedly tossed his way over the years as chapter titles – questions, which he states in the book’s forward, “I’ve spent much time and newsprint avoiding.”

Among them: “Do You Just Play Anything You Like?,” “Yes, But What Do You Really Do?” and “Are You Making This Stuff up?.” Oh yes, there is a particularly intriguing chapter called “Do You Like Doing Interviews?” that reflects upon the ritualistic chapter and verse of speaking to the press to promote a musical product.

Bruford doesn’t distain the press. In fact, he mentions several journalists and publications that have offered accurate and complimentary coverage of his work. But the chapter deals more with the inevitable: the repetition of like-minded questions obsessed with the familiarity and commercial visibility of an artist rather than their actual work.

“Just to let the public know of its (the work’s) existence, let alone of any possibility of it being heard prior to a decision to actively seek it out and buy it will require hour upon hour of patient, relentless self promotion. If your music has the sniff about it that it could actually make the label some money, then they could more or less be helpful in getting the word out, but I have long since forsaken the idea of making any kind of music that will trigger meaningful promotional dollars. So the punishment is: you’re on you own, buddy. And it’s going to hurt, repeating the same thing to a hundred different writers of one sort or another.”

That’s what Bruford thinks of interviews. Perhaps expectedly, requests for an interview with Bruford for this story fell upon deaf ears.

The Music: What was the music that made Bruford such an innovative percussive artist in the first place? A few obvious choices come to mind, like Yes’ landmark Close to the Edge album from 1972, as well as two King Crimson classics  – 1974’s Red and 1981’s Discipline (the latter of which featured Kentucky native Adrian Belew).

But there have also been scores of extraordinary works Bruford has released on his own over the decades, including the wonderful 1979 prog delicacy, One of a Kind (with his namesake band Bruford); an outstanding 1997 jazz trio session with bassist Eddie Gomez and guitarist/pianist Ralph Towner, If Summer Had Its Ghosts (the funding and recording of which provide the centerpiece for one of The Autobiography’s most insightful chapters); the ultra-fine 2002 concert album from Earthworks, Footloose and Fancy Free; and a 2007 duets outing with pianist/keyboardist Michiel Borstlap, In Two Minds.

That was the past. Still, it’s a past that Bruford, even as a performance retiree, still conjures vivid and immensely entertaining reflections from during his talks.

“For the intrepid soul who wishes to perform on a musical instrument in public, and for whom we should have the greatest respect, everything bends and changes,” Bruford writes at the close of The Autobiography, “but in different rhythms.”

An Evening with Bill Bruford will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 19 at the Drum Center of Lexington, 132 Southland Dr. Admission is $5. Call (859) 276-1827.

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