Jack Bruce remembers his first Edinburgh Festival appearance – as a schoolboy cellist accompanying the Young Communist League Choir on some Beethoven arrangements of Robert Burns songs.
There’ll be nothing quite so genteel when the Glasgow-born bass guitarist, singer and songwriter who conquered the rock world with Cream in the 1960s returns to play in the blues programme of this year’s Edinburgh International Jazz & Blues Festival, fronting a power trio with guitarist Robin Trower and drummer Gary Husband, although even in his heaviest configurations Bruce has proved capable of great delicacy.
The guitar, bass and drums format has been a recurring feature of Bruce’s career, most notably, of course, with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker in the multi-million album sellers Cream, with whom Bruce realigned for concerts in London and New York five years ago, but also with Mountain’s Leslie West and Trower as the guitarist foils in the 1970s and with Gary Moore and Baker again in the 1990s band BBM.
“It’s something that actually goes back to when I started out as a jazzer in the early 1960s,” says Bruce. “Back then, I was really keen on saxophonist Ornette Coleman and the band he had that I particularly liked had no pianist. I also played quite a lot with jazz trios, so I took that idea into the rock arena, if you like. There are a lot of things I like about it but mostly it’s the freedom aspect I enjoy. When you play with keyboards, you get locked down into set chord structures, whereas this way, you can really get into something spontaneous and explore a contrapuntal approach, if that doesn’t sound too high-flown, which is how I like to play.”
For Bruce, the past six years have been a bonus. In September 2003 he underwent a liver transplant after being diagnosed with cancer and there were fears that he might not make Cream’s return, which had already been pencilled in for the following summer.
“It’s not something that I like to go on about too much but the transplant was a gift, a miracle really,” he says. “It’s been tremendous because it’s allowed me to spend time with my family and see my son growing up, and it’s also allowed me to do some more playing, which has been a big part of my life.”
The appeal of getting up onstage has changed with the years, he concedes. Where once, when he was younger, he felt the gunslinger’s need to prove himself as the fastest in the west, now he simply goes out and has fun, especially playing with Trower.
“When Robin and I got together in the 1970s, he just got in touch, asked if I wanted to be part of an album he was making and that turned into BLT, which sold well and was a lot of fun,” he says. “We made another album shortly after that, then there was a long gap and he got in touch again, and it’s the same thing really. We’ve made an album, we’re going out playing and it all feels very natural.”
From Edinburgh Festivals Magazine, Summer 2009.
Jack Bruce, Robin Trower & Gary Husband, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh
This was the Homecoming gig that mattered to the capacity audience at the Queen's Hall on Friday, the return of a hero, Jack Bruce, the Cambuslang boy who went off and literally conquered the world in rock music terms. Which Jack would turn up, though? Answer: quite a few of them.
He was Jack the Lad, pleading with blokes going out for a smoke not to leave and mocking his sixties anthem Sunshine of Your Love with peace signs. He was Jack the bass guitarist with the unique presence, playing with an economy that meshed brilliantly with Robin Trower's howlin', articulate, moody blues guitar and drummer Gary Husband's super- efficient combination of thunder and subtlety.
Most affectingly, though, he was Jack the Voice. To describe the Jack Bruce of Cream as a great singer now seems like a glib understatement. This is a man who has sung the words of Samuel Beckett, as well as buckets of blues and the resulting depth of character and sheer tonal range, already huge, appear still to be growing.
His gnawing away at "is this real life?" towards Just Another Day's coda was staggeringly effective and his singing consistently took the trio's sharply focused, hard-edged blues-rock into the realms of high art, even if he mischievously dismissed his stunningly re-imagined Cream song We're Going Wrong, delivered with superbly anguished bewilderment, as "a classic example of Scottish miserablism". The honorary doctorates and degrees conferred by his local seats of learning are the least such a talent deserves but how great, too, to hear it in such a simpatico band.
From The Herald, August 10, 2009.