The news came over the weekend regarding the death of Jack Bruce, the bassist best known for his ground-breaking work with Cream. It tends to get overlooked from this distance, given Eric Clapton’s ongoing and well-deserved celebrity, that Bruce was not only Cream’s lead vocalist but also its chief songwriter. Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times obituary.
Jack Bruce, who became famous in the 1960s as the bassist and lead vocalist for the hugely successful rock group Cream, and whose adventurous approach to his instrument influenced two generations of rock bassists, died on Saturday at his home in Suffolk, England. He was 71.
His family announced the death on his website. A spokesman said the cause was liver disease; Mr. Bruce had received a liver transplant several years ago.
Mr. Bruce was well known in British rock and blues circles but virtually unknown in the United States when he teamed with the guitarist Eric Clapton and the drummer Ginger Baker to form Cream in 1966.
One of the first of the so-called power trios — the Jimi Hendrix Experience soon followed in its wake — Cream had its roots in the blues and became known for Clapton’s long, virtuosic solos on reworked versions of blues standards like “Crossroads” and “Spoonful.”
“Those original blues records had been done so well, which meant you could only ever be second best,” Bruce was quoted in the booklet for a 1997 Cream compilation CD. “But if you treated those songs with a great deal of love and respect, you could remake them into your own.”
Bruce, like Baker, also was steeped in jazz. If you haven’t yet, try to locate a copy of his first post-Cream solo album, “Things We Like,” a jazz fusion workout. Here’s a BBC review of the album.
“Things We Like” was recorded a few months ahead of Cream’s demise in August 1968, though not released till 1970, when Jack Bruce’s solo career was well underway. Since then it’s become rare as hen’s teeth, yet hasn’t been accorded the kind of mythic status that other Britjazz albums of the era seemed to have had bestowed on them. It would be trite to suggest that jazz snobbery might be in effect here…or would it? Maybe the fact that Jack wasn’t tempted to enjoy the poverty and critical hostility that was the lot of the British jazzer on a permanent basis caught the attention of the Jazz Police. Who knows..?
Bruce wrote these tunes when he was 12; he must have spent a huge amount of his childhood devouring industrial sized quantities of post bop jazz. These are vivacious, maybe even brash compositions, but they don’t sound like the work of a 12 year old (particularly the stalking, episodic “HCKHH Blues” or the hectic, tumbling “Over the Cliff”). To play them, Bruce returned to the double bass and enlisted former Graham Bond colleagues Dick Heckstall-Smith and John McLaughlin, plus drummer Jon Hiseman of Colosseum. Like Bruce, all these musicians had grown up on a diet of R&B and rock as well as jazz, and were casually breaking down the doors between them.
Heckstall-Smith’s raspy tenor (and occasional soprano)is the dominant voice, stuffed with equal amounts of blues honk and post-bop technique. Occasional Roland Kirk inspired dual saxophone action livens things up too. McLaughlin is on fiery form, with his scrabbly, distorted Hendrix-plays-bebop runs at an early but satisfying stage.
Meanwhile Bruce and Hiseman power things along at a fair old lick. What they sometimes lack in sophistication they make up for in drive and splashy energy. Bruce’s love of Mingus makes itself felt in his solo spots, while his tangy melodies recall the warped Texas blues of Ornette Coleman. A year or so later, McLaughlin had honed the first stirrings of electric jazz heard here into the sweet blast of “Extrapolation,” rightly regarded as a classic. While “Things We Like” isn’t maybe on that level, it’s definitely a forgotten gem.
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