“With Cream I and Ginger could play free jazz as a rhythm section, while Eric played the Ornette Coleman role. However, we didn’t tell Eric that!”
By J. R. Carroll
In the summer of 1966 I spent six weeks with a genial assemblage of fellow nerds doing thin-layer chromatography, learning to play bridge, sampling my first beer, and comparing cultural notes on our various points of origin. After the session was over, I continued to be in touch for a while with the British member of the contingent, and at one point we sent one another 45s we thought the other wouldn’t have heard yet. Aside from a single by a long-forgotten hometown band, I have no recollection what my contributions were, but to this day I vividly recall the impact of the British vinyl that arrived one day in our mailbox. Inside the well-padded envelope were 45s that included a song that thoroughly rattled my musical world (and my poor folks’ eardrums) by a group called simply Cream.
I put the single on my turntable and was first greeted by a few seconds of a cappella, “Bomp-bomp-bomp-ba-bomp-bomp…I feel free”; then, all hell broke loose. The breakneck tempo, the pulsing, virtuosic bass lines, the soaring, hornlike solo guitar, the polyrhythmic drumming that was simultaneously a blues shuffle and a ferocious straight eight, and, riding above it all, slow-moving, unearthly close harmonies surrounding the full-voiced and dead-on accurate lead vocal. I’d never heard anything like it, and neither had most of the world.
In the US, when rock met jazz, they called it fusion; jazz traditionalists hated it. In the UK, when rock met jazz, they called it progressive rock—and rock traditionalists hated it, too. Jack Bruce stood at the nexus of these developments.
A musical prodigy who emerged from the mean streets of Glasgow’s mining and industrial suburbs, at 71 Jack Bruce’s long road and more-than-decade-long battle with liver disease came to a quiet end on October 25th, surrounded by family and leaving a hole in the fabric of musical life whose dimensions are still being grasped. Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience were the original power trios, and every similarly configured ensemble to this day is in their debt, but this story has been and will continue to be elaborated upon endlessly in the mainstream media in the weeks to come. Bruce’s connections with the jazz world—and his extraordinary compositional gifts—will receive far less attention, and this remembrance will attempt in some small part to rectify that deficit.
Bruce’s working-class parents, although they moved frequently, gave him what musical support they could in the form of piano and guitar lessons, but when he spotted an upright bass amidst all the horns and drums of his high school band, the attraction to the instrument was immediate. Too small at that age to handle the huge beast, he studied cello for a while, but by his teens he had switched back to his first love and was already leading a busy nonacademic life as a working bassist. Admitted to the Royal Scottish Academy to study cello and composition, Bruce discovered that the powers-that-be disapproved of his jazz inclinations and gave him the choice of sticking to the classics, or leaving the Academy. He left.
By 1962 he had moved to London to join Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, where he met drummer Ginger Baker, saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith, and vocalist/organist/saxophonist Graham Bond, all of whom he would cross paths with repeatedly in the years to come. Guitarist John McLaughlin soon joined that list, and in 1963 Bruce (playing upright bass) recorded Sonny Rollins’s “Doxy” at a London R&B club called Klook’s Kleek with McLaughlin, Baker, and Bond on alto sax. It’s not a killer performance, but it’s a decent glimpse of Bruce’s very genuine jazz roots:
Bond shifted his focus to organ and vocals, Bruce (to the consternation of Baker) switched from acoustic to electric bass, and by 1965 the band’s sound was distinctly in the urban blues/R&B mode:
Bruce’s fractious love/hate (respect/detest?) relationship with Baker (which continued off and on until Bruce’s death, like a fifty-year version of the notorious Ellington-Mingus-Roach Money Jungle sessions) led to Bruce’s departure from the band. In 1966 he did a brief stint with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, where he met nascent guitar god Eric Clapton; Bruce already sounds very much like himself in this live recording, pushing the melody-oriented innovations of James Jamerson, Paul McCartney, and John Entwistle into new territory:
Bruce doesn’t vocalize here, but he was already taking the model of McCartney as the quintessential singing bassist and beginning to carry it into new and challenging territory. (Singing while playing sophisticated bass lines is no mean feat—ask anyone from Sting to Esperanza Spalding.)
Although Bruce (and Baker) were at this point thoroughly embedded in the London blues/R&B scene, their ears were still open to what was going on in the jazz world at the same time:
The liberating effect of improvising without a harmony instrument that Bruce heard in Ornette Coleman’s mid-60s trio (with bassist David Izenson and drummer Charles Moffett)—and in Coleman’s earlier quartets with trumpeter Don Cherry, bassists Charlie Haden and Scott LaFaro, and drummers Billy Higgins and Eddie Blackwell—stuck in Bruce’s mind, and would soon lead to a bold experiment. When in mid-1966 Clapton met Baker and the two decided to form a band, Clapton insisted (to Baker’s chagrin) that Bruce be the third leg of the stool, as bassist, lead vocalist and, ultimately, principal songwriter (with beat poet/lyricist Pete Brown, whom he had met a few years earlier through John McLaughlin). The three ace musicians modestly (cough) dubbed the new trio Cream (as in “of the crop”). It wasn’t long before blues standards would meet the openness and freedom of Coleman’s trio; here’s an extended version of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful,” recorded at the band’s farewell concert in 1968:
Over the following decades, Bruce would try again to capture lightning in a bottle in trio settings: with guitarist Leslie West and drummer Corky Laing, with the wonderfully named BLT (with drummer Bill Lordan and former Procol Harum guitarist Robin Trower), and with BBM, which reunited Bruce with Baker, joined by guitarist Gary Moore.
Bruce’s next project, recorded a few months before stepping back from the world of endless touring with Cream, was a bit of a surprise: a reunion with Dick Heckstall-Smith and John McLaughlin (in the company of former Graham Bond and future Colosseum drummer Jon Hiseman) on which Bruce picked up the acoustic bass once again to lead a pretty much straight-up jazz album, Things We Like. Check out Bruce’s “HCKKH Blues” (originally “Ho Ho Country Kicking Blues” when captured at that Klook’s Kleek session):
McLaughlin at this point had already caught the attention of drummer Tony Williams, who had heard a tape of McLaughlin and drummer Jack DeJohnette jamming in London, and invited the guitarist to move to New York and join his new trio with organist Larry Young, the Tony Williams Lifetime. (Shortly thereafter, McLaughlin was introduced by Williams to Miles Davis, and he soon found himself in the thick of a musical revolution, participating in the In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and Jack Johnson sessions.)
Meanwhile, in 1969 Bruce turned his attention to his first solo recording of original songs, Songs for a Tailor. Like his idol Charles Mingus, bassist Bruce was also a very capable pianist, and on this collection of highly original material he made good use of the instrument (and would do so in concert for the rest of his life). By this point, Bruce had revealed himself as a distinctive and readily recognizable composer (in tandem with lyricist Pete Brown, reluctant leader of obscure but fascinating bands of his own like the Battered Ornaments and Piblokto), and his songs were given a rich variety of settings, from horn sections to just Bruce at the piano.
Songs for a Tailor was well received, and became the first in a trilogy of song-focused recordings, joined by Harmony Row in 1971 and Out of the Storm in 1974. This body of work—richly melodic, with lines that alternately leaped and slithered chromatically; harmonically advanced, with restless yet decisive modulations; and rhythmically complex, with sometimes startling shifts in meter and tempo—would seem a prime repertoire for adventurous jazz artists to explore, yet aside from a few Cream hits, interpretations of Bruce’s songs remain few and far between. (Perhaps this will now change—too late for Bruce to derive any satisfaction from it.)
In early 1970, Bruce was gigging at Fillmore East with a short-lived (and never-recorded) group that included guitarist Larry Coryell, former Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell, and organist Mike Mandel. Williams and McLaughlin decided to check them out, and Williams was sufficiently impressed that on the spot he invited Bruce to join Lifetime. (He also renewed another significant acquaintance that night, pianist/composer/arranger Carla Bley.)
Given that Young already supplied a sturdy organ bass and that Williams again insisted on doing his own (thin) vocals, the single Lifetime album that included Bruce, Turn It Over, kept him somewhat in the background. The exception is a track that was not included on the original release and was the only one that Bruce sang on, a John McLaughlin tune titled “One Word” with a challenging vocal range that Bruce and only a handful of others likely could have compassed:
Only later in the decade did Bruce record in a trio setting with Williams, for McLaughlin’s 1978 Electric Guitarist compilation; “Are You the One?” is a fleeting taste of what might have been:
Lifetime live was another story, one that regrettably has little surviving recorded evidence. If Cream fans were by and large bewildered by the musical frenzy, jazz bassists—especially those already contemplating a switch from acoustic to electric—were shown a virtuosic yet melodic path forward. From Jaco Pastorius to Victor Wooten and beyond, Bruce’s innovations have been echoed in the playing of generations of electric bassists.
As Lifetime was winding down, a new project was ramping up. Carla Bley and poet Paul Haines were at work on the creation of an ambitious “chronotransduction” titled Escalator Over the Hill that involved dozens of important musicians (including trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, saxophonist Gato Barbieri, trombonists Roswell Rudd and Jimmy Knepper, and many others). Bruce was still touring with Tony Williams, so in order to create what may be the most extraordinary segment of Escalator, “Rawalpindi Blues,” Bley decided to subdivide the ensemble for that segment into the eight-piece Desert Band (led by Don Cherry), and the Traveling Band (a quartet consisting of Bruce, John McLaughlin, drummer Paul Motian, and Bley herself on keyboards) and record them separately, later weaving them togther in the studio. The results were amazing:
Bley wrote several more segments featuring Bruce, most of which he later recalled as being extremely challenging vocally (though not necessarily musically—Bruce was a fluent sight-reader), but, then again, that was why Bley wanted rock’s heldentenor in the first place. As it was, the musical and vocal challenges of Escalator Over the Hill turned out to be a lead-in to Bruce’s next (and possibly most perfect) solo recording, Harmony Row.
While Songs for a Tailor incorporated several songs originally intended for (but never recorded by) Cream, Harmony Row was entirely new material, giving the album a notable coherence. For this session, Bruce had two ideal companions, former Battered Ornaments guitarist Chris Spedding and future Soft Machine drummer John Marshall, but every other sound you hear on the album is Bruce himself. Bruce regarded Harmony Row as one of the creations he was most proud of—some of the songs remained in his live repertoire for decades—and that pride was not misplaced.
Following the breakup of the original Lifetime, there were tentative discussions among Williams, Bruce, and Jimi Hendrix about forming a trio, but, alas, Hendrix’s early death put an end to this tantalizing prospect. In 1972, though, Bruce’s friend and former Cream producer Felix Pappalardi, sick from heroin addiction, quit the Cream-modeled band Mountain (with guitarist Leslie West and drummer Corky Laing), and introduced Bruce to the remaining two band members. (Regrettably, Pappalardi also introduced Bruce to heroin, which he would battle for the next decade.) It seemed like an odd direction to take after the stratospheric experimentalism of the Tony Williams Lifetime, but the reconfigured trio (renamed West, Bruce & Laing) managed to stay together for two years of stadium tours and three albums, one live.
In early 1973, on hiatus from touring with WB&L, Bruce reconnected with Carla Bley and her then-husband and collaborator, composer/trumpeter Michael Mantler, to record (with Bley and Don Cherry) his settings of a group of poems by Samuel Beckett. At this grimly heroin-soaked period of his career, the bleakness of Beckett must have resonated with Bruce. Here’s a sample from the resulting album, No Answer:
Mantler and Bruce would return to Beckett in the 1980s, displaying a devotion to the author that puts them in the intriguing company of composer Morton Feldman. (For a deep dive into Beckett, be sure to read Robert Scanlan’s recent article in the Arts Fuse.)
With the dissolution of WB&L, Bruce turned to studio work for a while, playing on Lou Reed’s Berlin and on the title track of Frank Zappa’s Apostrophe. Then, in late 1974, he returned to the studio, working this time on the West Coast (where he got to fall in with a whole new set of junkies). Bruce brought along Lou Reed’s guitarist Steve Hunter and was joined in the studio alternately by drummers Jim Gordon and Jim Keltner, with Bruce, of course, supplying all the other instrumentation and the vocals (with Pete Brown’s lyrics once again). Despite the chaos surrounding the sessions, Out of the Storm proved a worthy companion to Songs for a Tailor and Harmony Row.
In order to tour behind the new album, Bruce assembled a most unusual quartet, bringing together Carla Bley, guitarist Mick Taylor (who had recently quit the Rolling Stones), and drummer Bruce Gary, a former sideman with bluesman Albert Collins and future drummer of The Knack. The group broke up the following year and never made a studio recording, but two live performances incorporating songs from Out of the Storm and its predecessors have been preserved, one of them for the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test:
1976 also saw Bruce participating (with John Marshall and Mahavishnu Orchestra keyboardist Jan Hammer) in a recording session with former Bostonian Charlie Mariano (on soprano sax), Helen 12 Trees:
Following the breakup of the quartet, Bruce entered perhaps the lowest point of his career. Burning through money on his drug habit and trying to survive as an artist against the backdrop of a music scene split between punk rock and its mortal enemy, disco, he formed yet another band, this time with keyboardist Tony Hymas (who would later anchor Jeff Beck’s band), session drummer Simon Phillips (who eventually joined Toto after the death of Jeff Porcaro), and a fellow Glaswegian, guitarist Hughie Burns. Their two albums, How’s Tricks and Jet Set Jewel (which wouldn’t be released until many years later) aren’t the disasters they’ve been made out to be, but, with a handful of exceptions (“Without a Word,” “Outsiders”), the largely straight-up pop tunes (some not even by Bruce) are nowhere near the level of their predecessors.
By 1980, Bruce had pretty much hit rock bottom and was starting to turn his life around. The next edition of Jack Bruce & Friends was an all-star assemblage featuring former Colosseum guitarist Clem Clemson, A-list session keyboardist David Sancious, and the formidable ex-Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer Billy Cobham. Fortified with five new Bruce/Brown songs (plus a revived “Mickey the Fiddler” from the Jet Set Jewel sessions), as well as originals by his three collaborators, the recording of I’ve Always Wanted to Do This marked a return to sanity and to something close to the level of his early-1970s solo albums. Fine as the album was, highlighted by one of Bruce and Brown’s greatest achievements, the meditation on Charlie Parker, “Bird Alone” (no relation to the Abbey Lincoln song), this ensemble truly shone in live performance:
Yet, again, when the touring was over, the band members went their separate ways. Nonetheless, Bruce was getting back on track, and the 1980s would bring new projects (and new relationships). In the concluding segment of this article, we’ll dig into the fascinating and diverse paths Jack Bruce pursued in the last three decades of his life.