[Slowhand] Jack Bruce, ace of bass

John Mills turbineltd at btconnect.com
Sun Jun 1 07:35:49 EDT 2008


>From The Sunday Times

June 1, 2008
Jack Bruce, ace of bass
Who are the best bass players of all time? 'Simple,' Jack Bruce says.
'Jamerson, McCartney, Pastorius and me'

Dan Cairns

There can't be many rock musicians who, when looking back over their career,
will drop the names of Schubert, Bach, Beethoven and Messiaen into the
conversation. But then, Jack Bruce is not your average musician. Nor, as the
endless online polls on the subject demonstrate, is he exactly average in
the bass-guitar department. Indeed, many consider him to be one of the
greatest bass players of all time.

This accolade, and his membership for just over two years in the late 1960s
of a rock trio alongside Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker, are what define him
for most music fans. Yet, as Can You Follow? - a new six-CD retrospective of
his recordings from 1962 to 2003 - makes clear, Bruce has achieved much
more, and of a far greater variety, than his work with Cream and his
performances as a bassist suggest. "Most rock stars are very good at one
thing," he says, "and no disrespect to that. But I would have been bored in
five minutes if that was all it had been about."
This whittling down of his musical life has caused him grief in the past.
Today, though, he seems sanguine about such a potted, not to say selective,
biography, and he is refreshingly free of that false modesty that, like
shyness, can be so attention-seeking and suspect.

Ask him who he regards as the best bass players in pop and rock history (see
box) and he answers at once: "If you're talking electric bass, it's very,
very simple: James Jamerson, Paul McCartney, Jaco Pastorius, me."

When, inevitably, the subject of Cream comes up, he fires out anecdotes like
a machinegun, but he also says: "Even Eric, with his tremendous solo
success - it's still Cream that people want to talk about. He complains
about it too."

To trace Bruce's bass-playing style(s), let alone his far-ranging work as a
songwriter, you have to go back to his childhood, when, encouraged by
musical parents, he studied piano, cello and composition at the Royal
Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, played in the Glasgow Schools
Orchestra, formed a skiffle group and, as a teen, got his first gigs on
upright bass with a local dance band. This wasn't just dabbling, even then:
it was total musical immersion. His father played trad jazz at home, his
older brother its more modern excursions, and his mother taught him Scottish
folk songs. The blinding flash occurred a little later, shortly before Bruce
arrived in London in the early 1960s and, by happy accident, fetched up in
Alexis Korner's band Blues Incorporated with, among others, Charlie Watts
and, later, Baker.

"I was working in Italy on an American air base," Bruce says, "and I got
very friendly with a lot of the black guys there. And that was when I first
heard [Charles] Mingus. I immediately realised that that was what I wanted
to be: a bass player who composed. I knew that I wanted to write, but I hadn
't put the two things together. As soon as I heard him, that was it."

It would, however, be a while before Bruce became established as a
songwriter. Fans would contend, though, that he was writing all the time: on
his bass.

The melodies Bruce magicked from his instrument have influenced generations
of bass players. Informed not only by jazz but by "the whole contrapuntal
thing in Schubert" and the Bach cello works he studied as a child - "That is
nothing if not bass parts," he says - Bruce soared beyond the instrument's
accepted limitations, sidestepping a song's melody, subverting it,
complementing it, in some cases simply launching his own subgenre within a
three-minute song. He never, he says, regarded the bass as, for want of a
better phrase, second fiddle, though many did. "There was this whole thing
about playing the bass," he says, "that was separate from anything else - a
certain special aspect to it. It wasn't to do with being seen as having a
supporting role. Bass playing was an art apart from music. The pecking-order
thing never really applied."

Before what he describes as the "madness" of Cream, Bruce led a charmed if
chaotic life with Korner, the Graham Bond Organisation, Manfred Mann and
John Mayall. When he first took up with Blues Incorporated, the band played
what Bruce scathingly calls "society gigs: Lady Londonderry's ball, stuff
like that - because Alexis was a hooray. We'd do things like Lord Rothschild
's party: that was quite a gig. Ginger, who was using a lot of dope at the
time, ended up asleep in Lord Rothschild's bed, and I remember flouncing off
down the drive and his lordship running after me going, 'Please don't go.'
And the Duke of Edinburgh coming up and saying: 'Could you play a waltz?'
'No we f***ing can't.' " Drugs stalked Bruce too, especially after Cream's
demise. Albums such as the superb Songs for a Tailor and Harmony Row were
acclaimed but sold on nothing like the scale that Cream's records had.
Musically, Bruce returned to the spirit of inquiry that had guided him since
childhood, but, in commercial terms, this diluted the brand and, despite
intriguing collaborations with John McLaugh-lin, Billy Cobham, Carla Bley
and David Sancious, he never hit the heights again. By the late 1970s, his
addiction was life-threatening, and it took the calming influence of his
second wife to get him back on track. Since then, he has produced a
succession of albums that vindicate the claims of some that Bruce was one of
the original world-music prophets - and he reunited, finally, with Cream in

Liver cancer almost killed him in 2003, but these days, sitting sipping tea
demurely in a London hotel, he is a picture, if not of health, then of
gnarled and defiant fortitude. I ask him if, in hindsight, he regards Cream
as an anomaly.

"I honestly think," he replies, "that if it hadn't been for that band, I
would have had a perfectly respectable career in perhaps a more esoteric

Can You Follow? - not to mention some of the greatest bass lines ever
recorded - deserves praise a little more wholehearted than merely

Deep down, I suspect he knows that. Who needs false modesty when you're as
great as Jack Bruce?

Can You Follow? is released on June 16 on Esoteric

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