The recently-departed Jack Bruce could have had no complaints. He made history, he made records that made people happy, and he made some money along the way. Still, as one-third of the first ever “super group”, Cream, he was never a true superstar — not that he had designs on being one. Ultimately, he was bass player’s bass player, a singer’s singer, a songwriter’s songwriter and, above all, a music aficionado’s musician. Jack Bruce was, to invoke an inevitable cliché, the consummate professional: curious, seldom satisfied, always striving, ever-developing. Decades after he secured his legend, he kept on going, because that’s what the real legends do.
Bruce’s Cream bandmate Eric Clapton has always been too coy for comfort about his own abilities. The other member of the trio, Ginger Baker, with his ego-starved belligerence, tends to greatly overestimate his place in the pantheon (Great? Yes. The Greatest? Give me a break). Jack Bruce, on the other hand, always seemed to have it just right: a quiet, never smug assurance, the refreshing combination of self-awareness and satisfaction. He knew what he was about, he knew what he’d done, and he knew that the people who really know — the musicians — understood his import.
To begin to comprehend, much less appreciate, the influence of the man, it’s crucial to recognize that he was a well-known, successful and respected musician before — and for a very long time after — his brief but essential role in the first (best?) rock power trio/super-group. Bruce, who was a bass prodigy focused on jazz, nevertheless earned a scholarship to play cello, presumably the proper path toward respectable employment. This, of course, was the early 1960s, so the freedom of jazz and, ultimately, the promise of rock, proved irresistible. After three spectacular but increasingly tumultuous years in Cream, Baker blazed his own trail (14 proper solo albums under his own name) before connecting with jazz legend Tony Williams. As it happens, he returned to this material as part of Spectrum Road, in 2012—of which more shortly.
But ultimately it’s all about Cream, at least for the average fan, and the fact of the matter is if he’d only done those few years of work, it’s sufficiently seminal to make a career. More, it has a staying power that ensures he would correctly be celebrated as one of the better bass players, singers, and songwriters in rock.
There are lots of jokes out there about drummers, but can there be any question that bassists get the least respect? The singer is, well, the singer; the guitar player is the loudest and typically flashiest, the drummer often gets the (dreaded? obligatory?) drum solo, also serving as the smoke and/or piss break for the other players. But the bassist? Less than a little love for the most part. Bass in rock music and, to a certain extent, even in jazz, is like the sky; it’s just there, and even though we’d have no world as we know it without those stars and clouds and expansive space, we tend to assume it’s always been there, is immutable.
Bruce was arguably the first bassist not named McCartney to shift perceptions, by virtue of his songwriting acumen and the technical ability to pull it off. Simply put, after 1966 bass could no longer be ignored and the music, going forward, was much better for it. For proof, all one need do is listen to the great tracks with some attention to detail. Yes, just about everything Cream did satisfies on every level: conceptually, compositionally, and in terms of delivery. But pick up the band’s debut Fresh Cream and, if you can, listen with as sole a focus as possible on Bruce’s playing. Even if you’re a fan; even if you’re a huge fan, it is ceaselessly invigorating, humbling even, to hear how busy yet purposeful he is; to marvel at how freewheeling he is, always (somehow!) in the pocket; offering granite-hard support while also coloring and augmenting every second.
In our era of guaranteed victories, pot-shots via social media, and PR machines decreeing — as ever — what we should like and who should matter most, let’s celebrate the cheekiness of calling themselves Cream. That’s not a name, it’s a gauntlet. It’s also the right mix of cockiness and certainty: they were the best, and were fully prepared to prove it. They did, as their uber-influential (think Led Zep and Jethro Tull, just to name two huge bands whose earliest work was practically a sonic thank-you note to what Cream made possible) career demonstrated. But then they took it to a whole other level, making work that is quite unlike what anyone did, or has been able to imitate or improve upon.
And a lot of people might assume, understandably (?) that Clapton was the singer anyway since, of course, he’s Eric Clapton. He was Eric Clapton, he became Eric Clapton, and he’s still Eric Clapton. But no, that is Jack Bruce on just about every song. Cream had the self-proclaimed best drummer in the world and God on lead guitar, so even though Jack Bruce had chief songwriting duties and was possibly the most gifted bassist on the planet, it was his vocals that made Bruce at once the wild card and complete package. The result was many things to many people: postmodern blues, proto-psychedelia, even a precursor to heavy metal. Truth in advertising, this work remains the cream of the crop; Cream is the thinking man’s hammer of the gods.
PSA: If your acquaintance with this band involves the hits heard on the radio, dig deeper, even though “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room”, “Strange Brew”, “Crossroads”, and “Tales of Brave Ulysses” — do they play that one on the radio anymore? — are fantastic. Pick up Disraeli Gears at your earliest opportunity and savor perfection.
It’s the lesser-known tracks (I’m thinking the tri-fecta of “World of Pain”, “Dance the Night Away” and especially “We’re Going Wrong”) that showcase everything that’s so superlative and distinctive about this band. Baker is typically all over the place (in a good way), rolling and tumbling with an understated fury that is remarkable; Clapton uses his wah-wah pedal and technical proficiency to paint one of the earliest — and purest — monuments to psychedelia. You can almost taste the notes and see the sounds inside the colors … or perhaps that’s just the cover art.
It’s Bruce, however, who does superhuman work throughout. First, his vocals, never fully appreciated in this writer’s estimation, are — aside from being unassailable — perfectly suited to the material. The mournful but not melodramatic delivery on “World of Pain” is astonishing; the ebullience on “Dance the Night Away” (that harmonizing!) and the gentle resignation of “We’re Going Wrong”: this is all top-shelf, time-capsule shit. Even a lark like “SWLABR” (She Walks Like A Bearded Rainbow) is so brimming with invention, originality, and élan it becomes a tour de force, delivered in two minutes and change. And those vocals!
Here’s the thing: this wasn’t merely rock music; this was a band, entirely locked-in, creating a sound and feeling that resulted in indelible music. It may sound dated to some, and certain haters are simply never going to accept those transition years where rock musicians got (too?) serious. Much credit, as always, must be given to the Beatles, but at the same time, Cream was not pushing boundaries so much as scoffing at them; stepping over them, catapulting the genre into an entirely different stratosphere.
Like his estranged mates, Bruce became a peripatetic icon, staying true to his vision while using that artistic restlessness to explore new places, people, and possibilities. His work with Tony Williams (in Lifetime) is, in its way, as satisfying — and impressive — as anything he did with Cream. Not for nothing was this “just” sitting in with jazz icons, he was playing with Tony M.F.-ing Williams, a drummer whose boots Baker should have been honored to lick. This isn’t just about branching out, or establishing cred — as if that mattered to Bruce — it was about the best in the business, relishing the chance to challenge and inspire one another.
This is why, after some uneasy (but remunerative) reunions with Cream, much more solo work, and collaborations with some of the bigger names in the business (see: Ringo Starr), it was his return to the Tony Williams tribute band, Spectrum Road (along with Vernon Reid, John Medeski, and Cindy Blackman Santana), that made so much sense, and lends a special closure. I was fortunate enough to catch this act in the summer of 2012 and can attest, Jack Bruce was still bringing it.
During my discussion with Vernon Reid, the Living Colour guitarist could not say enough good things about the bass player he’d long admired: “Jack Bruce is that guy. We are all in awe of him, but he is so open and, of course, he has been involved in music on so many levels for so many years … it’s just astounding.”
Yes, Jack Bruce was an original whose influence is difficult to properly quantify. Yes, he will be missed and never replaced. And yes, the music he made will make him impossible to ever forget. Jack Bruce didn’t need music videos, laser shows, dry ice, PR Kits, and crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics. He let his playing speak, so his work — and life — remains an inspiration for anyone who hopes to understand how it’s properly done.