by Gary Gomes
It is one of the ironies of life that the man who changed the way that the bass guitar was thought of in rock music is little known to the general public--even the fans interested in music.
When one thinks of bass players in rock music, the mind of the general public generally turn to people like Paul McCartney, Geddy Lee, Roger Waters, and perhaps Flea and the late John Alec Entwistle (a fellow pioneer) or Chris Squire-- but rarely to the man who actually pushed the instrument front and center like few did before him--or after.
Jack Bruce was initially a classically trained musician who was studying the cello at the Royal Academy of Music in Glasgow, Scotland. The need to support his family led him to play upright bass in local jazz bands, and this was said to have led to his expulsion from the Royal Academy--in certain institutions of music, the faculty would often insist on dedication to one style of music and Bruce's interest in jazz to pay the bills did not sit well at the Royal Academy.
With his ejection from the Academy, he embarked and played acoustic bass with several well known bands, including Alexis Korner and the Graham Bond Organ-isation. Having seen several electric bass guitarists, he decided to move over to this instrument and went through several bass guitars, including a Fender VI string bass. The Fender VI string was relatively underutilized in this time, and Jack began to develop a busy, elaborate accompaniment style--a style which would get him criticized by people as diverse as Ginger Baker and Frank Zappa. Jack Bruce also put some time in John Mayall's Blues Breakers as a stand in for John McVie and managed to make a strong impression on Eric Clapton in the process (interestingly enough Lee Jackson of the Nice, another speedy, busy bass player, also substituted for McVie with Mayall for about 6 weeks). Bruce also played with Clapton and Winwood on a blues compilation album called Powerhouse. Bruce and Baker were together in one of the most respected bands in England when they were in the Graham Bond Organisation. Although they made a terrific rhythm section, Baker forced Bruce to leave the band at knifepoint. Baker tells of Bruce starting to play during Baker's drum solo; Bruce states that Baker's animosity towards him started well before that incident, when Bruce switched from acoustic to electric bass. Whatever the reasons for his departure, Bruce had other opportunities, including playing with Manfred Mann, who he impressed by not having to rehearse new material with the band and getting the material perfect. He was also offered a bass playing job with Marvin Gaye which he turned down--one of Bruce's bass playing inspirations was the ubiquitous James Jamerson. The other influence he most often mentioned was Johann Sebastian Bach.
I want to take a bit of this tribute to discuss the busy versus spare approach to bass playing. In rock, there is a strong emphasis on sticking to basic structure. So most bass players did not practice particularly ornate accompaniment. The emphasis is on pulling the rhythm section together to create a kind of a glue that holds the rhythm and accentuate the chord roots. Jamerson, however, was not afraid to push these boundaries, and, as soon as McCartney could be heard in the mix (think "Paperback Writer" and "Rain"), he started to push the boundaries as well. Hugh Hopper once remarked on the evolution of McCartney's playing. Other bass players, in addition to Bruce (John Entwistle, Jim Fielder of Blood, Sweat and Tears, Jack Casady, and Lee Dorman of the Iron Butterfly to name several) also pushed in this general direction, but the bass tone most used was very deep--so deep as a matter of fact, that it was often difficult to distinguish notes in the mix. You could hear Entwistle when he played the lead in songs like "My Generation" or "Call Me Lightning," but Entwistle could be mistaken for a guitar at times. There was no doubt when you heard, Bruce you were hearing a distinctive voice--a bass, but with a great deal of meat and aggression to the tone and one that straddled the musical world between the higher pitched instruments and rhythm at the same time. This had been done in jazz before (Charlie Mingus, Scott LaFaro, Gary Peacock, Charlie Haden, Jimmy Garrison and Dave Izenson are great examples), but this approach was almost unheard of in rock, at least in recorded work.
Bruce had developed a unique tone in addition to his considerable dexterity--he was one of the few bassists in rock at the time who had come directly from playing an upright bass to an electric. Some bass players who had taken up the electric bass after playing acoustic after Bruce seemed averse to pushing the electric bass to the fore. Recordings of Steve Swallow and Dave Holland playing electric bass on Watt Records releases seemed to show a reticence to punch up the sound, something Bruce was never afraid to do.
With Cream, perhaps because of the blend of personalities involved, no one seemed willing to take a back seat, but the music flowed beautifully. All three musicians had a built in sense of structure that allowed their long improvisations to sound coherent, and Bruce, contrary to some opinion, did lay a foundation, but more like an aggressive jazz bassist than a rock bassist. In some jazz bands, you can see the bass player working furiously in the background, but not much sound emanating as they are overwhelmed by horns or drums. With Bruce's (and before him, Entwistle's) embrace of Marshall stacks, bass players could finally be heard above the din of drums and amped up guitars. The interaction was revelatory. You could hear Bruce matching and sometimes surpassing Clapton in terms of sheer dexterity, and the overdriven Marshalls gave his sound an angry growl that could punch through the mix. Bruce would later, as Hendrix had done, add a diode to his bass circuitry to allow the bass to overdrive at lower volume levels--sadly, this was done after they all suffered hearing loss due to Cream's high volume levels.
Love or hate Cream's improvisations, they had a major impact on many players who came after them, and even in the studio, Bruce dominated the group. His work on the live versions of "Crossroads," "I'm So Glad" and "N.S.U." among others, still rank as some of the finest bass playing I ever heard. With Pete Brown writing the lyrics, he was responsible for most of Cream's original material, with Clapton and Baker providing considerably lower levels of written output. Bruce was also the principle singer for the group. I always found his voice captivating and was puzzled by those who did not, especially given his range and expression and the fact that more limited vocalists were held in such high esteem in rock. He also, as he did in his later solo works, added cello, piano, acoustic guitar and a very distinctive organ sound to Cream's work.
When Cream disbanded, Bruce formed a short-lived band with Larry Coryell, Mitch Mitchell, and Mike Mandel, and he later joined the Tony Williams Lifetime with Larry Young (Khalid Yasin) and John McLaughlin, appearing on both Turn It Over and parts of Ego. I saw this band at the Newport Jazz Festival and they were incredible, although Bruce was more reticent than when he was with Cream.
Bruce was asked to be the bass player in Crosby, Stills and Nash, but not sing. He also participated (as a singer) in Carla Bley's chronostransuction Escalator Over the Hill, and did a remarkable job as the sole singer in Mike Mantler's work based on Samuel Beckett's No Answer. In addition, he produced four marvelous solo albums in the 1970's, from the pure jazz of Things We Like to the visionary Harmony Row. He also played with Clapton-idolator Leslie West in West, Bruce, and Laing, as well as collaborating several times with Robin Trower, who tried to emulate Hendrix. Bruce also appeared in the last (in name only) incarnation of Soft Machine (1981), and had a hand in several interesting albums, including Lou Reed's Berlin.
The late 70's and early 1980's found him struggling with heroin addiction, and he took session work to survive, having gone through most of his money. However, he did manage to put several bands together and produce a respectable body of work, including his I Always Wanted to Do This band, which featured Billy Cobham, Clem Clempson and multi-instrumentalist David Sancious, earlier with Bruce Springsteen and later with Peter Gabriel. Although his session work was valuable, his career probably experienced its greatest creative rebirth when he teamed up with Kip Hanrahan and worked with Hanrahan's team of Latin percussionists. In the late 1980's, he reunited with Ginger Baker, teamed with Clapton again, as well as Rory Gallagher.
In 1993, Bruce united with Baker and Irish guitarist Gary Moore, and he continued collaborations with Kip Hanrahan, Ringo Starr and Peter Frampton throughout the decade. However, after all of his range of creative activity, Bruce was diagnosed as having liver cancer and had to endure a liver transplant that nearly killed him in 2003. This brush with death probably led to the Cream reunion in 2005, which was a phenomenal commercial success for all three members. In 2009, he also collaborated in a Tony Williams Lifetime tribute band with Vernon Reid, Cindy Blackman and John Medeschi and also collaborated frequently after this with Robin Trower and drummer Gary Husband.
Several other collaborations followed, including jazz collaborations, and Bruce was busy until the release of his last album Silver Rails in 2014.
The reason for producing this laundry list of activity was to show the range of creative activity in which Bruce was engaged. I can't think of any other musician who came out of the culture of the 1960's who had quite the breadth of exposure and versatility of Bruce. Also, there were very few people who possessed Bruce's innate musicality. There was a story I read years ago which relayed how Bruce managed to record his voice on a mellotron. Mellotrons were early samplers that required a sound be held for seven seconds at every pitch over three octaves that was recorded. Bruce did it; Paul McCartney could not, despite his other talents.
Also, just to put Bruce's influence in perspective--prior to the appearance of Bruce, the bass was the instrument that most young players took up when they did not want to be relegated to the drum chair. After Bruce, virtuosic bassists started proliferating at an insane rate. One could say this was true because of Entwistle, but Entwistle was in the popular public eye for a while before Bruce, and many bassists, including Geddy Lee and Roger Waters, identified Bruce as a primary influence. Bruce both opened up the playing field for busy players, inspired many that followed, and left a legacy of creative effort that showed him to be at home in a wide variety of contexts, in addition to the heavy blues rock for which he best known. Always searching, always striving for new experiences, Bruce's range of creativity made it difficult to market him, but was invaluable for his continued relevance and inventiveness. He covered more styles in ten years than many musicians exhibit in a lifetime, and he was active for fifty years.
A great musician and a great creative talent, unparalleled and admired, he will be greatly missed.
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