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JACK BRUCE: 14/5/1943 - 25/10/2014
More Jack than Cream, thoughts on a musician whose music has been a constant companion
Jack Bruce gave the world some fantastic music with Cream, including possibly the most played riff in rock history (Sunshine of Your Love). But Cream represented only two years of a career that lasted over fifty years. Jack made exciting music before Cream and covered an astonishing range of interests afterwards, from rockin' R&B with Rocket 88 to sophisticated jazz orchestrations with Mike Gibbs and from the electric storms he created with Lifetime to the tenderly operatic What is the Word, Michael Mantler’s gorgeous setting of Samuel Beckett’s words on his Folly Seeing All This album.
These are a few personal favourites among Jack’s catalogue.
Harmony Row – the masterpiece. Songs for a Tailor signalled a refreshing new direction post-Cream and contained timeless songs including Theme from an Imaginary Western, but Harmony Row trumped it for me. It’s a very personal collection of songs, written beautifully, sung directly, played tightly (yet also loosely when appropriate), and programmed so perfectly that I still get up to turn it over onto side 2 after Folk Song, even when I’m playing the CD that replaced my worn-out vinyl.
How’s Tricks – from the sheer force of Jack’s bass playing that, together with Simon Phillips’ spring-loaded drumming, still makes Without a Word such an express train of an opening track to his magnificent vocal on Something to Live For, this is an underappreciated gem that still makes the hairs on the back of the neck stand up.
Monkjack – if Jack had ever fallen out of love with playing bass, he could surely have walked into a career as a singer-songwriter-pianist. This is Jack playing piano with the spare approach of Thelonious Monk (to superbly apposite organ work from Bernie Worrell) singing the blues and poetry that he transforms into the blues with passion, soulfulness and a tonal range that conveys so much in so few words.
HR Big Band featuring Jack Bruce – Songs for a Tailor hinted that Jack could front a jazz big band and some of its tracks appear here as Jack’s bass, acoustic guitar, piano and vocals seem entirely to drive the orchestra of Hessischer Rundfunk (German Public Radio of Hesse) on a kind of orchestrated greatest hits. There was talk of Jack doing a similar project with the national jazz orchestra of the country of his birth for his seventieth anniversary. It never happened but this is a taste of what might have been.
Jack Bruce & His Big Blues Band Live 2012 – Not as big a band as the HR Big Band but with arrangements that make the trumpet, tenor saxophone and trombone section sound like way more than three instruments, this is late period Jack looking back but still taking his music forward. Neighbor Neighbor dates from the Graham Bond Organisation’s 1960s set-list but on gigs with this team (drummer Frank Tontoh was an inspired choice as Jack’s rhythm section partner) it swaggered with in the moment urgency, and We’re Going Wrong, a Cream track that seemed suddenly to grow towards its full potential in Jack’s late 1990s bands, blossoms into an almost cinematic drama.
Silver Rails – the unintended parting shot, a snapshot of an artist who couldn’t stop creating and who almost fifty years after first seeing a set of Pete Brown’s lyrics could still sprinkle a new set with melodic magic dust. Keep it Down makes a surprise reappearance, sending, I’d imagine, many more people than me to listen to Out of the Storm again. Reach for the Night delivers another chapter in the Bruce-Brown book on how to write character songs in the Consul at Sunset style, as well as a cooking Hammond solo from John Medeski, and Industrial Child is Jack caressing words and music at the piano as only he could.
Seven Moons Live – pardon a completely personal indulgence with this. When Jack, Robin Trower and Gary Husband brought this music to Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival in 2009, Jack didn’t look well. He’d had an infection leading up to the gig, it later transpired. I said to the chap sitting next to me, who happens to be a GP, that I didn’t know if I was going to have to write a review or an obituary. My neighbour nodded his concerned agreement. Then the magic happened. Music really is a healing force. By Just Another Day Jack was a bass playing character actor and turning in a performance that had to be rewarded with more than applause. The paper I write for, The Herald, awards statuettes called Angels to performers who convey something truly outstanding during Edinburgh’s festival season. These can be discussed at some length as we critics put forward our favourites. But my “speech” in support of Jack consisted of two words – “Jack Bruce” – and that was all that was needed. I still get transported back to that gig when I play this album. The Angel, as far as I’m concerned, was a lifetime achievement award.
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