Jack Bruce: Willpower: A Twenty Year Retrospective

Jack Bruce
Willpower: a Twenty Year Retrospective

It was with John Mayall’s Bluebreakers that Eric Clapton first accrued status as Britain’s premier guitar hero. His groundbreaking electric blues playing made such an impact on fans that graffiti-type scribblings of “Clapton is God” became the favored slogan on London walls. His stint with the Bluesbreakers made him a star in the U.K., but with Cream, Clapton would establish himself as an icon on both sides of the Atlantic. It was with this super-trio that Clapton, bassist/vocalist Jack Bruce and drummer Ginger Baker would experience real commercial success and international recognition.

From 1966 to 1968, Cream would record future classics like “Sunshine of Your Love”, “White Room”, “Crossroads”, “I Feel Free” and “Badge”, while at the same time pushing the boundaries of live performance with their improvisational prowess. Following the demise of Cream, Eric Clapton continued to thrive musically, and the hits of every subsequent decade have included his music — from songs like “Layla”, “I Shot the Sheriff”, and “Lay Down Sally” to “Forever Man”, “She’s Waiting” and “Running on Faith”, to “Tears in Heaven”, “Before You Accuse Me” and “Change the World”.

Unlike Clapton, Jack Bruce hasn’t spent the last 30 years churning out readily accessible commercial songs, nor has he enjoyed high visibility on MTV and VH1 — media that Clapton has used to great effect. For Bruce, commercial success seemingly began and ended with Cream. But while Clapton’s recent history has been well documented, to most, Jack Bruce’s is shrouded in mystery.

A child prodigy, Jack Bruce was a multi-instrumentalist with a strong background in jazz and classical music who, at age 17, had won a scholarship to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music for cello and composition. By 1962, Bruce had landed his first important gig with Alexis Korner’s Blues, Inc., that included drummer Charlie Watts, who would later join the Rolling Stones. A year later, Bruce would join forces with organist Graham Bond, drummer Ginger Baker and guitarist John McLaughlin in what would later be known as the seminal Graham Bond Organization. A brief stint with the Bluesbreakers a few years later brought Bruce and Clapton together — a fateful meeting that would soon result in the successful association, Cream.

With Cream, Eric Clapton would undoubtedly garner most of the attention, mainly out of his growing reputation as resident guitar god. But it was Jack Bruce’s presence that would prove paramount to the band’s impending success; he penned most of Cream’s original material with lyrical collaborator Pete Brown. Without Jack Bruce there would’ve been no “Sunshine of Your Love”, “White Room”, “I Feel Free” or “Deserted Cities of the Heart”, nor would Cream have had his distinctive, powerful vocals to propel most of the band’s catalog. In the end, it was Bruce who felt that he had strayed too far from his roots, and that perhaps Cream had gone as far as it possibly could. His desire to create new and untapped forms of music was too great to ignore, and his vision could never really be accomplished with Cream. So with the band’s demise, Jack Bruce dove head first into as many diverse collaborations as possible, with the goal of pushing the envelope of musical tradition.

His ’70s experience would commence after the release of his critically acclaimed solo debut, Songs for a Tailor (1969). Throughout the decade Bruce would work simultaneously in series of rock, jazz and classical formats, collaborating with Tony Williams Lifetime, jazz guitarist Larry Coryell, Frank Zappa, Lou Reed, Robin Trower, Leslie West and Corky Laing, while interspersing several fine solo records in the process.

Ironically, Jack Bruce’s Willpower: A Twenty Year Retrospective, originally released in 1989, features none of the collaborative efforts previously mentioned, but focuses almost exclusively upon his ’70s solo ventures. Of the album’s 17 tracks only two Cream tracks — the classic “White Room” and the haunting, open-tuned acoustic number “As You Said” — made the final cut. Eric Clapton also makes an appearance on two previously unreleased songs, “Ships in the Night” and the title track. Although recorded in 1987, “Willpower” sounds as if it jumped off of Disraeli Gears with Clapton reverting back to his classic Cream guitar sound. Recorded during the same sessions, “Ships in the Night” features a breathtaking duet between Bruce and vocalist Maggie Reilly, with Clapton rounding out the song with a blistering yet poignant guitar statement.

In essence, the rest of Willpower lifts equally from Songs for a Tailor, Harmony Row (1971), Out of the Storm (1974), How’s Tricks? (1977) and his unreleased 1978 effort, Jet Set Jewel. You won’t find any catchy pop here; instead, what is unearthed are sophisticated, cleverly written and arranged compositions that are designed to move the listener. Nowhere is this more true than on Bruce’s Procol Harum-ish tour-de-force, “Songs for an Imaginary Western” and the somber piano ballad, “Can You Follow?” The other magic moments that follow are just as impressive including “Rope Ladder to the Moon”, “Morning Story” and the jazzy, brass-infused, “Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out of Tune”.

Willpower: A Twenty Year Retrospective serves as a perfect introduction to those unfamiliar with Jack Bruce’s post-Cream endeavors. This disc offers up the best of Jack Bruce, the brilliant multi-instrumentalist, profound vocalist, visionary songwriter and a musician who, 30 years after his greatest success, is still on a mission — even if most aren’t privy to it.