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Jack Bruce

With his love of jazz and blues matched only by his former sparring partner and CREAM colleague, GINGER BAKER, bassist/singer/composer/keyboard-player JACK BRUCE has ridden the test the time despite some knocks and fall-outs. Whether sole author or songwriting collaborator (alongside lyricist PETE BROWN or guitar god ERIC CLAPTON in his CREAM days), the Scotsman has maintained a musical equilibrium since his tenure with JOHN MAYALL’S BLUESBREAKERS and of course, the aforementioned psychedelic blues trio, CREAM. Many have cited lone composition, `We’re Going Wrong’ (about the break-up of a relationship), as his greatest songwriting achievement.
Born John Symon Asher Bruce, 14th May 1943 in Bishopbriggs, Lanarkshire (near Glasgow), his teething years as a teenager was spent listening and learning jazz, his father a seasoned buff into the likes of Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong. Aged 17, and already married with a son on the way, Jack won a scholarship to the RSA of music, although after a short, 3-month stint (while also moonlighting for local ensemble, Jim McHarg’s Scotsville Jazzband), the estranged dad took himself off to Europe.
Not quite fitting to any distinctive set, BRUCE moved to London and was soon playing double-bass in Blues Incorporated, a bebop/jazz/R&B group led by ALEXIS KORNER. In 1963, JB broke away with Blues Inc alumni, Graham Bond, Dick Heckstall-Smith and veteran drummer, GINGER BAKER. The Graham Bond Quartet soon became The Graham Bond Organization (dropping off guitarist JOHN McLAUGHLIN along the way), but by August ’65, the in-fights among BAKER AND BRUCE, led to the latter being pushed out. In the meantime, electric bassist Jack had married for a second time; Janet Godfrey subsequently giving birth to first of two children soon afterwards.
A solo single, `I’m Getting Tired (Of Drinking And Gambling)’ flopped for Polydor Records, but unperturbed, Jack joined up with ERIC CLAPTON in JOHN MAYALL’S BLUESBREAKERS, while a short-ish stint with MANFRED MANN (playing on No.1 smash, `Pretty Flamingo’) gave him a bit of spare cash and some due TOTP fame. Always willing to burn the candle at both ends, BRUCE and CLAPTON were also part of the short-lived side-line, Powerhouse (also starring STEVE WINWOOD as Steve Anglo), a blues group who performed staples such as pre-CREAM cuts, `Crossroads’ and `Steppin’ Out’.
There was no doubt Jack made his greatest ever career move, when he teamed up in the summer of ’66 with old mucker CLAPTON and a reluctant BAKER in power trio, CREAM. Becoming one of the greatest bass players of all time, his hard hitting style and booming vocals were an integral part of the CREAM sound, his technique mimicked by countless heavy rock groups in the years that followed. After the band’s demise in late ‘68, JACK BRUCE went solo, although remaining under the Polydor wing of artists (Atco in the States).
Recorded with a backing band including the aforementioned sax-player Heckstall-Smith, plus drummer Jon Hiseman, Felix Pappalardi, drummer Jim Marshall and young guitar hero CHRIS SPEDDING, Jack’s debut album SONGS FOR A TAILOR (1969) {*7} hit the UK Top 10 (US Top 6). Despite its ambitious, idiosyncratic blend of jazz-fusion and folk-rock (the track `Theme For An Imaginary Western’ duly became part of Leslie West’s MOUNTAIN repertoire), its best cuts coming with `Weird Of Hermiston’, `Rope Ladder To The Moon’, `The Ministry Of Bag’ and the brassy `Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out Of Tune’.
During 1970, Jack was also part of US jazz-rock outfit TONY WILLIAMS’ LIFETIME, contributing his talents and musicianship to an album of same name, while his sophomore solo set, THINGS WE LIKE (1971) {*6} – instrumental recordings from 1968 crediting GRAHAM BOND alumni John McLaughlin, Jon Hiseman and Dick Heckstall-Smith – was little more than a self-indulgent free-form jazz trip. Having said that, and with MILES DAVIS’ “Bitches Brew” doing the rounds at the time, it was very much a re-birth of cool and in-vogue.
Returning to the prog-meets-jazz rock scene, although sounding uncannily like PROCOL HARUM’s Gary Brooker (lyricist foil PETE BROWN was Jack’s Keith Reid), proper follow-up HARMONY ROW (1971) {*6} was an impressive set of songs, albeit a tad uncommercial. The piano-led `Can You Follow’, the IAN ANDERSON-ish `Escape To The Royal Wood (On Ice)’, `You Burned The Tables On Me’ and the single `The Consul At Sunset’ were its most gracious pieces, although the album went virtually unnoticed except in Jack’s loyal brigade. Jack would duly take up with former MOUNTAIN men in supergroup trio, WEST, BRUCE & LAING, guitarist Leslie West and drummer Corky Laing offering up a CREAM-type accompaniment on two patchy studio LPs, `Why Dontcha’ (1972) and `Whatever Turns You On’ (1973), plus concert swansong `Live ‘N’ Kickin’’ (1974); another American to find BRUCE’s appeal hard to turn down was the enigmatic FRANK ZAPPA, who invited the man to play bass on his absurd but classy concept set, `Apostrophe’.
The result of his Stateside campaign was the rather American-ised OUT OF THE STORM (1974) {*6}, which also failed to chart. Featuring soon-to-be exiled Rolling Stone guitarist MICK TAYLOR (alongside fellow guitar guys, West, CLAPTON, Steve Hunter and ROBIN TROWER), the set was a more straightforward mainstream rock effort. The delicate, almost stage theatrical vox of BRUCE was at its most effective on `Keep On Wondering’, `One’, `Peaces Of Mind’, `Golden Days’ and an ode co-penned with his now ex-wife Janet, `Running Through Our Hands’.
His 1977 set, HOW’S TRICKS {*6} was recorded under The Jack Bruce Band banner, the employment of Hughie Burns (guitar and a lead vocal piece on his self-penned `Baby Jane’), Tony Hymas (keyboards) plus stalwart lyricist PETE BROWN all having their say on the Bill Halverson-produced record. Taking into account that CREAM’s “Disraeli Gears” was now a decade old and the new wave/punk movement was in place, Jack sounded indeed nonconformist as he slipped into a harder-edged STEELY DAN mode throughout.
1980 saw him team up with “Friends” (Clem Clempson, Billy Cobham and David Sancious) for the release of the album, I’VE ALWAYS WANTED TO DO THIS {*5}. Yes, the 80s had arrived, and his fans were beginning to wonder what’d happened to the once-proud rocker turned mediocre mainstream pop artist. Time then for change in direction and the rock resurrection for B.L.T. (1981) {*6}, an album giving equal billing to JACK BRUCE, Bill Lordan and ROBIN TROWER. One is probably aware of TROWER’s post-HENDRIX assimilation, although drummer Bill Lordan was unknown up to now. With the aforementioned PROCOL wordsmith Keith Reid drafted in, the songs were simple-riffed exercises; BRUCE contributing `Life On Earth’. Almost equally split between BRUCE and TROWER (Reg Isadore played drums), TRUCE (1982) {*7} was another splendid collaboration, Jack and his homeboy PETE BROWN letting loose a handful of gems including `Thin Ice’, `Fat Gut’ and `Shadows Touching’. Throughout much of the ensuing decade Jack focused on his drug and alcohol problems, although there was one German-only LP, AUTOMATIC (1983) {*4}, a record not for the people but an attempt to do something very different.
The following decade saw Jack again reunited with old sparring partner Ginger for the blues/rock’n’roll-flavoured A QUESTION OF TIME (1990) {*7}. Harking back to his/their CREAM days (and yes, BROWN was again in tow), the set housed one WILLIE DIXON nugget, `Blues You Can’t Lose’, alongside Brown/Bruce vehicles such as `No Surrender’, `Obsession’ and the title track. SOMETHIN ELS (1993) {*7} continued the songwriters’ passion for ethnic blues, while subsequent sets, CITIES OF THE HEART (1994) {*6} – a double-CD live document featuring CREAM songs – and the jazzy MONKJACK (1995) {*5} kept BRUCE in high esteem with his loyal following and the odd critic. Squeezed somewhere in between all three albums, was the BRUCE, BAKER and GARY MOORE’s (BBM) collaborative Top 10 success, `Around The Next Dream’ (1994), a showcase for the much-revered trio. An appearance of the former THIN LIZZY axeman was a highlight of BRUCE’s 50th birthday bash in 1993, a subsequent album SITTING ON TOP OF THE WORLD {*6} coming out some fours later. Sadly its release coincided with the passing of his 29-year-old son Jo Bruce (a member of the AFRO CELT SOUND SYSTEM) who died of an asthma attack on 8 October 1997.
In the summer of 2001, Jack was back with a fresh set of recordings, SHADOWS IN THE AIR {*5}, a record complemented by appearances by old chums CLAPTON and MOORE, plus DR. JOHN and LIVING COLOUR’s Vernon Reid; a must-hear is the almost exact take of CREAM’s `Sunshine Of Your Love’.
MORE JACK THAN GOD (2003) {*7}, as well as possibly having the best title of his career, was one of the best albums of his post-CREAM career. Collaborating with the likes of Bernie Worrell and Vernon Reid again, BRUCE turned out a supple, insinuatingly effective set of songs fired by root-funk rhythms and Kip Hanrahan’s Latin percussion, a recipe which was even applied to `I Feel Free’ (another CREAM topping) with surprisingly impressive results.
Ill-health blighted BRUCE’s career from then on in as cancer was diagnosed. An almost fatal liver transplant was turned into a positive when he slowly recovered from what seemed his death-bed. CREAM duly re-united for a live at the Royal Albert Hall series of four concerts, but then it was time to take things a bit easier. With a raft of concert sets hitting the shops, it was hard task to distinguish what was indeed freshly recorded material, and what was not. The HR-BIG BAND FEATURING JACK BRUCE (2008) {*6} was relatively new, recorded as it was for a one-off gig in October 2006; all the usual solo and CREAM suspects were on board this piece of nostalgia. JACK BRUCE and ROBIN TROWER filled out their time with a long-awaited third collaborative set, SEVEN MOONS (2008) {*6} – just what the doctor ordered. The obligatory SEVEN MOONS LIVE {*6} subsequently joined the dots and crossed the T’s, while percolating some added CREAM gems to the strange brew. JACK BRUCE AND HIS BIG BAND LIVE 2012 {*6} was exactly what it belied on the tin, the man losing none of quavering vocal style on the likes of `Weird Of Hermiston’, `We’re Going Wrong’, `White Room’ and `Sunshine’. In the same year, Jack put together a tribute supergroup of sorts, Spectrum Road, inspired by the works of his old mucker, the late TONY WILLIAMS. Together with guitarist Vernon Reid, Organist John Medeski and drummer Cindy Blackman (CARLOS SANTANA’s wife), the jazz-rock quartet delivered a worthy eponymous set.
Celebrating over 50 years in the business since his days under the wing of ALEXIS KORNER, frontman/bassist JACK BRUCE roped in a handful of big name guitarists (MANZANERA, TROWER, MARSDEN, ROTH and his son Malcolm Bruce) for his first studio set in 11 years, SILVER RAILS (2014) {*7}; note that Medeski and Santana were also it tow. Reinstating the stalwart PETE BROWN as right-hand-man songwriter (as well as his wife, Margrit Seyffer and Kip Hanrahan on one each), BRUCE piloted the listener back to his earthy, organic sounds of the 60s/70s, sounds that convinced us of his mettle. Understandably not as strong in vox than in these heady times, Jack still maintained spontaneous pitch and phrasing; example the CREAM-y `Rusty Lady’ (a wicked paean to Maggie Thatcher!), the grungy psychedelic `Drone’, the hard-edged `No Surrender’ and the prog-ish `Hidden Cities’. Sadly, it was to be Jack’s epitaph as he died on 25 October 2014 at his Suffolk home.
© MC Strong 1994-2002/GRD-MCS // rev-up MCS Aug2012-Nov2014

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