Global Bass Online August/September 2001
Bassist for Bill Brufords new Earthworks~Mark
Take a glance at any of the World's drummer mags, check out their favorite drummer polls and you will invariably find the name of Bill Bruford. Having spent the best part of his career with prog rock legends Yes and King Crimson, Bill has inspired countless numbers of sweaty-palmed young wannabees to pick up a set of sticks and start bashing. Bill, as they say, has the chops.
It was Bill's roots in jazz that really marked him as an island in the stormy sea of rock drummers that pummeled it's way relentlessly through the late sixties and seventies. So it was no surprise when, in 1986, he decided to return to those roots and formed the jazz band Earthworks with keyboardist and tenor horn player Django Bates, and saxophonist Iain Ballamy, both members of the band Loose Tubes.
The band cut four albums and toured constantly until Bill rejoined King Crimson in 1994. Fast forward a few years and you will find Bill re-forming Earthworks with a completely new, all acoustic, line-up. Pianist Steve Hamilton, saxophonist Patrick Clahar and upright bass player Mark Hodgson.
Their first album, 'A Part And Yet Apart' appeared on the Discipline Global Mobile label in 1999 and earlier this year I caught their live set at Bath University as they toured the second album 'The Sound Of Surprise'. Their live set is outstanding, a real treat for jazz fans, Bruford fans and anyone who appreciates true musicianship. I snagged Mark Hodgson later on for a chat about his experiences as part of Earthworks. I began by asking him to fill in a bit of background about his musical education.
"My father was a jazz musician and there was always music around that he would play to me when I was young", he recalled with a smile. "Then I went to music college in Leeds for a while, I was just playing electric bass at that time in fusion bands and punk bands. I took a year out to practice and then I went to the Guildhall in London and did a year-long course there."
So how does a bass-player, in his early twenties, who has just moved to London, manage to get a gig with an artist with the musical pedigree and stature of Bill Bruford?
"Well I was playing a lot on the London scene, basically I'm a kind of Be-Bop jazz bass player and I was getting a lot of gigs on the jazz scene in London. Bill came to a gig I was playing at a club called 'The 606' in Chelsea and he liked what he saw. I had been recommended by the piano player so he rang me up and said 'Come on down' and that was it really, all pretty simple."
Although both Steve and Patrick have had their fair share of accreditations in the past, Patrick primarily with Incognito and Steve with the likes of Bobby Hutcherson, Freddie Hubbard and Gary Burton, all three of Earthworks' new members are still very young and, as a consequence, very fresh musicians. I asked Mark how it feels to walk into a high profile gig alongside a man widely regarded as one of the world's finest rock and jazz drummers. His answer was, I guess, somewhat predictable.
"Great," he laughed. "I used to listen to Bill a lot with the band Bruford with Jeff Berlin and Alan Holdsworth. I used to be sitting at the back of my math lessons with one ear of the headphones in, listening to that. So it was great you know, I mean before playing with Bill I was doing some quite high profile jazz gigs, so it wasn't completely out of the blue but that was really a different scene and we suddenly started doing some pretty big gigs, so it was great. The thing about Bill is that he's really open-minded, he's interested in jazz and rock and that's where his background is, so it's actually a really good opportunity for both of us in a way."
To see Earthworks play live, or to listen to the albums is a stunning experience for the listener. The material is so adventurous and unpredictable, time signatures leap in and out and melodies and counter-melodies intertwine wildly, yet the band always holds on to the groove and the fluidity and are able to play off each other expertly. Mark offered some insight into their sound.
"I think the second album is better than the first because we'd already been playing the material. I hadn't even played any odd meter stuff before I met Bill so it was a very sharp learning curve, but after some time of playing it and going on the road with the band you do get used to how it should be played. We played that music for a month before we did that album so we knew it pretty well. It sounds quite complicated, and it is at first, and the funny thing is that when Bill first played me the demos of some of the tunes I just kind of looked at him, you know, but finally you get used to it and it becomes fun, you know, and you can improvise around it."
Most of the compositional work is done by Bill himself, Mark told me that the grooves and the rhythmic ideas all come from him, as do the melodies. Steve Hamilton packs out the harmonies and stuff and Mark gets to write a few bass lines and there are places where Bill will just ask him to drop in a solo but, as Mark says, "that's kind of a jazz thing anyway".
Mark's upright bass is a 120 year old German built bass which was originally a three-string marching bass, so it's quite a light instrument. At some point in it's lifespan the fourth string was added. "it's not a particularly valuable instrument," Mark mused, "it's worth about eight grand or so but it's great to play. Live, I use a Gallien Krueger amp with Hartke speakers and then I use David Gate pickups, which are quite common now".
So is Mark Hodgson a double bass purist then?
"No, I've played electric for years, I've got a Yamaha TRB 5 & 6. I started on electric, that's why I got into the band Bruford. I was listening to Jeff Berlin and Anthony Jackson and Jimmy Johnson and all those guys. That's one of the things that I think was attractive to Bill too, because I had some of that history, I wasn't just coming from a jazz thing, I had some of the '60's and funk era as well. Originally I wanted to play both electric and double bass, but Bill didn't really want that."
As well as the material from the two recent Earthworks' albums you might well hear them playing some tunes from earlier incarnations. Even the odd piece from the album that Bill did with Ralph Towner and Eddie Gomez or some of the stuff from the BLUE project with Tony Levin.
"Yeah, we were talking about doing some of the old Bruford stuff," Mark remembered, "but the sound just wasn't the same you know, because I love all those old tunes and it would be a shame not to do them justice by introducing different sounds".
Just like almost everybody I've ever interviewed Mark cites the influence of people like Anthony Jackson and Jaco. It's interesting that bassists from all genres recognize the outstanding contributions of these great players.
The future is wide open for Mark Hodgson, aside from gigging with Earthworks and any other opportunities that may open up for him as a bassist, he's also just started his own record company and signed his first band. So he's looking forward to getting stuck into promotion and marketing! Meanwhile you'll be able to catch up with him and the rest of Bill Bruford's Earthworks in a concert hall near you soon.
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