Tentative Review #75

Bill Bruford
If Summer Had Its Ghosts

(released 1997)

1. If Summer Had Its Ghosts*****
2. Never The Same Way Once*****
3. Forgiveness****
4. Somersaults****
5. Thistledown****1/2
6. The Ballad Of Vilcabamba*****
7. Amethyst****1/2
8. Splendour Among The Shadows*****
9. Some Other Time*****
10. The Silent Pool*****
11. Now Is The Next Time****1/2




With King Crimson presently branching into various side projects, it should hardly be surprising that drummer Bill Bruford would take advantage of the opportunity to release a jazz album. Recorded in only five days in early 1997, If Summer Had Its Ghosts marks Bruford's successful return to the idiom which he loves the most (even if his personal history is more rooted in the rock idiom).

At a recent King Crimson promotional appearance, Bruford made the comment that this project was inspired by a fan's suggestion after a live performance -- to slightly paraphrase his wording, he said that the suggestion of working with Gomez & Towner seemed much more interesting than the usual suggestions of Jon Anderson & Chris Squire! Although one assumes that there were some contractual elements not mentioned in this statement, the following assumption might still be made if there is any truth whatever in it (and we can probably assume there is): for all his supposed arrogance, Bruford knows which fans to listen to.

The primary stylistic question regarding If Summer Had Its Ghosts is not "is it jazz?" (it most certainly is), but rather "is it fusion?". ISHiG contains some elements of the fusion tendencies which allowed various rock figures (including Bruford himself) to expand their horizons in the 1970s, but it isn't restricted to this. Much of the music seems to be a curious hybrid of pre-fusion tendencies and post-fusion arrangements. Perhaps this suggests that Bruford has managed to transcend such limiting genre classifications.

The liner notes to this album also suggest that Bruford was interested in creating music which wouldn't sound "difficult" to non-musicians, regardless of whether or not it really was difficult (he would doubtless describe this as a sign of his maturity). It can safely be said that, on this matter, he was remarkably successful. If Summer Had Its Ghosts is an album that can be appreciated in both a casual and an active manner.

For my own part, I was rather underwhelmed by the album when I first heard it -- it was pleasant enough, but something seemed to be missing. It was only when I prepared this review that I realized just how much was happening only slightly below the surface.

If Summer Had Its Ghosts, with its genre-crossing and deference to substance over flash, may well be the album that Bruford has wanted to create for years. If nothing else, I suspect that it's certainly the album that he wanted to create in 1997. The fact that Bruford himself wrote most of the album (in contrast to many of his earlier releases) is a point in his favour as well.

The album begins with the title track, a series of developments on a rather simple melodic base. The best playing, as might be expected of something in this idiom, happens "around" the song rather than "inside" of it -- Bruford, Gomez and Towner all provide subtle variations throughout the duration of the song -- nay, of the album -- which almost invariably reward studied listening; Bruford's quirky shifts in time and tempo are in many ways the true prize of this piece. The piece itself is somewhat of a microcosm of the album -- underwhelming at first, subtly rewarding afterwards. Ralph Towner's acoustic guitar performance sounds a bit odd in the mix at times, but this ultimately only adds to the value of the performance. [Side note: doesn't the dark bass line which starts at about 1:30 sound quite a bit like a throwback to Jeff Berlin's performances in the Bruford band?]

"Never The Same Way Once" is even better, featuring a more developed, melody (shades of "Palewell Park", at times) and a generous dose of subtle tricks as the track develops (those who like time changes should be at home here). Gomez and Towner are excellent sidemen on this track, thus proving Bill's ability to write music of this sort for a band performance. Its doubtful that any progressive fan would have much to dislike here.

"Forgiveness", an unused Earthworks track (Django's melodic sensibilities are obvious), is a gentler piece, in which Towner plays a dominant role. If there's a such thing as English Countryside jazz, this is probably it -- given the frequency with which Bruford mentions his background in interviews, it was probably inevitable as well. The piece has excellent texture throughout its sparse development -- it's quite good, just a bit less so than the previous tracks.

As might be expected from the title, "Somersaults" begins with a rather active drum pattern (with Towner and Gomez soon joining in). This particular track has obvious roots in fusion, particularly as regards Gomez's solo. Bruford's drumming patterns are extremely interesting, of course, but one wonders if this particular track was a bit too clever for its own good -- the "rock" influences may have been intended as parody, but this isn't quite clear from listening to it. It's still a good track, but if one work had to go, this would probably be it.

"Thistledown" features the welcome return of Bruford's chordal drum system, allowing for various melodies to recur at different times on all four instruments (d/g/k/b). Traditional drums also make an appearance in mid-song as well, further benefiting the texture of the piece. The melody is also quite strong here; my only complaint would be that it doesn't really develop.

To express myself in Frippian terms, "The Ballad Of Vilcabamba" employs the unrelenting pursuit of a celebratory ethos through the means of music. The drums, bass, acoustic guitar and kettle drum effects match perfectly with each other to this end, with Bruford always managing to make his presence heard as the piece develops. This may ultimately be the track which best summarizes the ideal that Bruford was attempting on the album -- a celebration of musical possibilities, intelligently crafted, and by no means intended only for an elite. A triumph.

"Amethyst (for Carmen)" is a Gomez track, and is thematically distinct from the rest of the album. Towner plays a lament on acoustic guitar with Bruford providing percussive backing as the piece beings; Gomez soon joins in overtop of this. This is a very stark number, with little overt "action" aside from Bruford's drumming suggestions (which are still fairly subtle at that). That said, the track doesn't seem out of place on the album, and is in any enough a poignant enough number to stand on its own.

"Splendour Among The Shadows" is easily one of the best pieces here, a rather "busy" track with an opening which might suggest the term "psych-jazz" -- a bit less subtle than the rest of the album, it's still very good. The chordal drums return, and the changes in melody, tempo, and time are quite frequent on the part of all three musicians. A pleasure to hear.

As the liner notes acknowledge, "Some Other Time" is Bruford's adaptation of Joe Morello's solo on "Far More Drums" from Dave Brubeck's Time Further Out album; he gets "good business ethics" points for fixing the credit accordingly. Viewed independent of its history, it's a rare combination of subtlety and expression. Listeners might note a few similarities to King Crimson's "B'Boom" at times, though this can hardly be surprising. An impressive work, in all.

"The Silent Pool" may be the oddest track here -- beginning on a single extended note and featuring a bass line adapted to resonate as a cello, this features a truly impressive chordal drum section and may be the closest that Bruford has ever come to resembling Brian Eno's work. The piece becomes a bit more "active" after the two minute mark, but is still the most ambient creation here.

"Now Is The Next Time" (Towner's track) is probably the most "conventional" jazz-fusion track here. The keyboards set the general melodic base, and the other instruments work from this (an impressive guitar solo follows as well). The track probably isn't vital for the logical continuity of the album, but there's certainly nothing wrong with it.

In sum, If Summer Had Its Ghosts seems to consolidate Bruford's place as Robert Fripp's ironic fellow traveller -- that is, as one who follows most of Fripp's theories without having invested long hours of time arriving at them on a philosophical level. ;)

This album is strongly recommended to all Bruford/Crimson fans, and most Yes fans as well. Also recommended: listen to it more than once.

The Christopher Currie

(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 21 February 1998)

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