If one were to read just the obituaries that appeared following the passing of musician Jack Bruce this past Saturday at the age of 71, one might be led to believe that Bruce quit the music business when Cream broke up in 1968. If your knowledge of Jack Bruce is limited to the music he made with that greatest of all rock power trios, then, to use a popular phrase, “you don’t know Jack.” Jack Bruce was the finest bass player of the past half-century in my view, but he was one of the greatest musicians of all-time. Bass was his primary instrument, but he had classical training as a cellist, was an accomplished pianist, and played harmonica as well. He considered himself a jazz musician, but he was able to play any kind of music and bring something unique to the proceedings. He was also a brilliant songwriter, and wrote several songs now considered to be classics with his long time lyricist Pete Brown. If you want to know more about Jack Bruce’s history and career, read his autobiography, Composing Himself, published in 2010. If you want to know more about his music, I think I can help.
I’ve been listening to and collecting Jack Bruce records since his days with Cream. There’s a comprehensive discography at jackbruce.com that details his solo work, his impact with several bands, and his contributions as a sideman with a wide variety of some of the finest musicians in the world. I can’t claim to own or to have heard everything, but I can certainly point you in the direction of some of his best work if you’re interested in exploring his music.
Before joining Cream, Bruce made notable recordings with The Graham Bond Organization, Manfred Mann, The Power House (with Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton), and John Mayall. He worked with Donovan while in Cream, and made a record with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated the year he released his first solo album following the demise of Cream. Of these records, Graham Bond’s The Sound of ’65, along with its follow-up, There’s A Bond Between Us are highly recommended examples of British Blues at its best. Both are available now on a single CD from the BGO label. Bruce’s brief work with John Mayall is available on another pair of LP’s, Primal Solos, and Looking Back, and from what I understand, also available on the reissued deluxe, expanded edition of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers album. The Power House recordings are on Elektra’s What’s Shakin’ LP available from Sundazed. Of these early collaborations, the above titles would provide a nice foundation for a collection of Bruce’s work.
From there we move to Cream. For a band that was only together from 1966-1968, there are a lot of albums from which to choose. But the best way to proceed is to pick up Fresh Cream, Disraeli Gears, Wheels of Fire and Goodbye Cream. Those are the four albums the band cut during their brief lifespan, and all four belong in any serious collection of rock. You can add Live Cream and Live Cream II if you’d like, and write a finish to the Cream years with their 2005 reunion set Royal Albert Hall. That’s available both as a CD and a DVD, and both are highly recommended.
Bruce began making records under his own name in 1969 with the classic Songs For A Tailor. This is the quintessential Jack Bruce album. It’s filled with songs he would return to in his live set throughout his career, and proves his versatility as a musician, while showcasing his bass playing, vocals, and talents as a composer. The solo records that followed are all worth hearing, but each is unique. Bruce uses a variety of musicians on his own records, and shows off his facility as a jazz player on records like Things We Like (1970) with John McLaughlin, Jon Hiseman, and Dick Heckstall-Smith. I’m particularly fond of Live ’75 with Carla Bley, Mick Taylor, Bruce Gary, and Ronnie Leahy. This is cutting edge progressive art rock, and this band was among the finest with whom Bruce played. Jet Set Jewel, recorded in ’78, but not issued until 2003, is a real find. It features Heckstall-Smith, Tony Hymas, Hugh Burns, and Simon Phillips. It’s one of Bruce’s best sets of songs, and had Polydor, his label at the time, not refused to release it, would’ve been enjoyed and appreciated by a much larger audience. Better late than never, though. I’ve Always Wanted To Do This (1980) is a must as well featuring Billy Cobham, David Sancious, and Clem Clempson. And don’t miss A Question of Time from 1989 that features an all-star cast of some of the best rock players available at the time (Vernon Reid, Paul Barrere, Vivian Campbell, Alan Holdsworth, and Nicky Hopkins to name a few) along with the great Bernie Worrell, Tony Williams, and bluesman Albert Collins. Bruce’s old nemesis Ginger Baker turns up as well.
Those last couple of records bookended a busy solo decade for Bruce, but he was just getting warmed up. In the 90’s and beyond into the new century, Jack Bruce continued to make excellent records. Something Els (’93), and Monkjack (’95) showcase Jack’s piano prowess while Shadows In The Air (’01) and More Jack Than God (’03) are both Jack at his best as a bandleader and player/composer. During this period, there were live sets issued from the archives that are well worth searching out. BBC Live In Concert (’95) and Live On The Old Grey Whistle Test (’98) are excellent, but just a primer for the outstanding 3 CD Spirit box from 2008 that rounds up some of the best work Bruce ever did under his own name. These are BBC recordings spanning 1971-1978 – all previously unissued – featuring some of the best bands Bruce had during his solo career. Though not strictly a career overview, I consider this set essential to any appreciation of Jack Bruce.
In 1994, Bruce teamed up once more with Ginger Baker, and added Gary Moore on guitar for the BBM album, Around The Next Dream. The collaboration didn’t last, but the album was a beauty. Bruce also recorded a pair of albums with Robin Trower and Bill Lordan under the moniker B.L.T. They cut a self-titled album in ’81, and another called Truce that same year. Both are highly recommended. (A reunion with Trower in 2008, Seven Moons, was solid if less successful.) In the decade prior to that power trio, Bruce worked with ex-Mountain men, guitarist Leslie West and drummer Corky Laing in West, Bruce & Laing. They cut two studio records and one live album – all of which were fine records, but it’s their debut Why Dontcha from ’72 that’s a must. Bruce also made a terrific record in 1988 with Leslie West titled Theme that I would recommend as well. And after Cream split in ’68, Jack worked with jazz drummer Tony Williams in a band called Lifetime. Their debut, Emergency was submarined by the worst production and sound in the history of record making, but the follow-up Turn It Over is much better and shows what the band was capable of.
You can browse Bruce’s discography at jackbruce.com for more, but there are some special appearances worth noting. Bruce is on Carla Bley’s superb Escalator Over The Hill (’71), but an album you should not miss is Kip Hanrahan’s Desire Develops An Edge if you want to hear what Bruce could do in a support role with a great collection of musicians. He steals the album.
I’d also like to mention a compilation album by an Austrian jazz trumpeter and composer named Michael Mantler titled Review 1968-2000. Some of the work Jack did with Mantler is featured here, but the reason I mention this album specifically is because it’s the perfect way to hear Jack Bruce in an environment in which he was completely comfortable, but which is about as far removed from his work in rock power trios as could be. The collection features the likes of Bruce along with Carla Bley, Don Cherry, Larry Coryell, Jack DeJohnette, Marianne Faithfull, Terje Rypdal, Pharoah Sanders, Chris Spedding, Mike Stern, Steve Swallow, Tony Williams, and Robert Wyatt among others. That’s an impressive list. And it underscores what I was saying about the obituaries doing Jack Bruce a disservice by mentioning only his work with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker in Cream. There was much more to Jack Bruce. His body of work rivals that of any other musician over the past five decades. In browsing his discography, it seems he never rested – until now. If there’s a band in the heavens, the announcement must be made to the bass players in line at the audition, “Thank you all for coming. But the bass chair has been filled.” Goodbye Jack, and thanks for everything.