JJ 08/71: British Jazzmen No. 10 – Jack Bruce

From 50 years ago, a period reminder by Martin C. King of Jack Bruce's deep-rooted affiliation with jazz. First published in Jazz Journal August 1971

Jack Bruce (left) in later years at a Cream reunion gig with his Warwick bass

It is unlikely that many of the discussed in this series will find themselves the subject of a BBC television documentary film, though one can think of several men whose work and lives would make interesting material for such a programme. That Jack Bruce was so privileged was, of course, a direct result of his success in rock, a success which also provided him with enough riches to buy his own Scottish island. Jack’s musical world though extends far beyond that of the average pop musician. He won a scholarship to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music but, finding its formal atmosphere thwarted rather than encouraged his creativity, left after a term. One could summarise his career to date by saying that he started out playing jazz, moved into rock, then decided to return to jazz but bringing to it some of the techniques of contemporary pop.

When Jack first appeared, playing double bass for Graham Bond in the early 19605, he was playing a hard-driving yet freewheeling kind of modern jazz which was the perfect antidote to the rather stale cool school and the declining trad boom. Graham Bond’s “Solid Bond” album shows how he provided a solid foundation for the group with a full tone and attack right on the beat. Occasionally he sounds a little hesitant, but such moments are over­shadowed by the times when he lifted off from his regular pulse to break into a dazzling run.

By the mid-1960s Bond’s musical policy had changed. “The Sound of ’65” is a pop LP, crude by today’s stand­ards perhaps, but nevertheless encapsulating the mood which began an extremely important era for British pop. There was at this time a strong “back to the roots” movement. Much of the inspiration of early Beatles and Rolling Stones came from rock ’n’ roll (Chuck Berry, Little Richard, etc.). What Bond and a growing num­ber of pop musicians (including The Stones) were trying to do was to get back to the music that had inspired rock ’n’ roll: post-war Chicago blues. Bond caught the rawness and directness of the style, but the pop audience wasn’t ready for it – if you were digging Gerry & The Pace­makers and The Searchers, Graham Bond sounded harsh and tuneless.

And as far as the jazz fan was concerned Bond had gone com­mercial and sold out to the popsters – there was little evidence of any real improvisation going on on records such as “The Sound of ’65” (though live perform­ances were quite different) and Jack Bruce was playing one of those new-fangled bass guitars. So Bond’s Organisation was disowned by both camps. A number of other groups were begin­ning to develop the same way, and the period marked the beginning of British “underground” music, when it really was underground and not the big business it is today. Pete Brown’s words to Bruce’s Theme For An Imaginary Western (Cream – “Wheels of Fire: Live at Fillmore”) recall the atmosphere of these days, drawing a parallel between these musicians and the men opening up the new lands in colonial America.

During 1966 Bruce joined up with Eric Clap­ton and Ginger Baker to form Cream, a group which, by its emphasis on improvisation, was to revolutionise pop music. By this time not only were the musicians ready to experiment but the audience was ready to go with them. Cream’s repertoire was made up from blues standards and original material. In live performances the numbers would become the base for extended improvisations, dazzling in their power and in­ventiveness. Sometimes though one feels that the group’s tremendous “wall of sound” became an end in itself and there was little creativity going on (e.g. the self-indulgent version of Spoonful on “Wheels of Fire”), yet the best moments (e.g. the guitar counterpoint between Clapton’s lead and Bruce’s bass on Crossroads) leave no doubt that, unlike a number of lesser rock groups who use volume to hide their lack of musicianship, Cream consisted of truly first-rate players. The Fillmore LP and the three live tracks from their farewell album “Goodbye” show the band at their best, though this is not to deny that weak spots do occur from time to time. As well as featuring Jack’s singing and bass playing, “Fillmore” also displays his earthy blues harp on Traintime. “Goodbye” is of interest in that, as well as the live tracks, it also contains three studio numbers and so provides a ready comparison between Cream’s approach to recording and performing. In the studio they made free use of all the techniques and effects of pop music (overdubbing, electronics, etc.). Here they laid down definitive versions of their songs. But in front of an audience they made no attempt to reproduce studio versions of their tunes, but stripped them down to their basic elements (words and chord progressions) and built new patterns on the remaining skeleton.

While all this was going on Jack was also working, comparatively unnoticed, on several other musical fronts. He continued to play a number of jazz gigs with Mike Taylor (and made the album “Trio”) and The New Jazz Orchestra (album “Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe”), and reverted to the string bass. The way he works his way round the changes on Nardis on the latter LP is a joy – sturdy but swing­ing, and using a few nice ringing harmonics to add extra life to his solo. During this time he developed as a composer; his haunting Immortal Ninth (which takes its title from the leaps of ninths in the bass line) is still in the NJO reper­toire. With Dick Heckstall-Simth (tenor and soprano saxes), John McLaughlin (guitar) and Jon Hiseman (drums) he made a jazz album under his own name (“Things We Like”), though it wasn’t released until a month or so ago since Jack’s manager didn’t think that an informal blowing session such as this was compatible with the “heavy” Cream image.

The first LP to be issued under his name, “Songs For A Tailor”, made shortly after Cream split, was really a pop record despite a personnel whose names are more familiar to the jazz public. All the songs were composed by Bruce with lyrics by Pete Brown – a partnership which had proved extremely successful in the Cream days. Brown’s surrealistic words and Bruce’s spikey tunes are a perfect match. In this post-Cream freelancing period he formed an interesting group with Larry Coryell (ex-Gary Burton guitarist), Mike Mandell (organ) and Mitch Mitchell (formerly drummer for Jimi Hendrix) for an American tour, and also played in this country for Mike Gibbs and Neil Ardley. Some Echoes on Gibbs’ album “Michael Gibbs” features an incredible duet between Bruce and Chris Spedding – both on bass guitars – which sounds like two dinosaurs romping.

Jack is now a regular member of Tony Williams’ Lifetime, a group which occupies that poorly defined territory between jazz and rock. Only time will tell whether such a fusion is the promised land its protagonists claim it to be, or whether it is in fact a barren wasteland. I tend to believe that an amalgamation can be useful for both sides, but a group like Lifetime does give me certain misgivings. With musicians of the calibre of Tony Williams (drums), Larry Young (organ), John McLaughlin and Jack Bruce the potential seems almost limitless, yet on record (“Turn It Over”, Polydor 2 42 5019) and in concert one’s impression is of a harsh, distorted, over-loud band with no real direction. I’m sorry to have to end on a negative note, but I can’t honestly say that I enjoy Lifetime’s music on any level. Maybe an improvement will come as the group gets used to playing together for, as mentioned above, the potential does seem enormous. (That the vocals now seem to be handled by Bruce instead of Williams is already a change for the better).

As for Jack himself, the best is surely yet to come. It is unlikely that he will ever get the “superstar” acclaim of the Cream days again, nor does he seem to want it, yet artistically he is growing all the time, his technique improving and, as he works in different contexts, his musicianship expanding.

Recommended records
1.Graham Bond – Solid Bond. Warner Bros. 3001
2. Graham Bond Organisation – The Sound of ’65. EMI (deleted)
3. Cream – Wheels of Fire: Live at Fillmore. Polydor 583 040
4. Cream – Goodbye. Polydor 583 053
5. Mike Taylor Trio – Trio. Columbia SX 6138
6. New Jazz Orchestra – Le Dejeuner sur I’Herbe. Verve VLP 9236
7. Jack Bruce – Things We Like. Polydor 2343033
8. Jack Bruce – Songs For A Tailor. Polydor 583 058
9. Michael Gibbs – Michael Gibbs. Deram SML1063