For a brief spell in the '70s, it was still possible to explore multiple genres...
Chris Jones 2008
There was a time, a long, long time ago, when rock musicians were allowed to be more than just rock musicians. Many forget in fact that the first generation of such artists sprang from backgrounds that took in blues, jazz, classical and even the avant garde. London's early '60s venues rattled to the sounds of trad jazz and chicago blues as well as folk, rock 'n' roll and skiffle. Jack Bruce was most definitely a product of this era. it was only by the end of the decade that he was cornered into behemoth blues rockdom with the supergroup Cream. When the acrimony and work rate saw the band splinter, Eric Clapton turned to heroin and southern rock. and Ginger Baker decided to explore African polyrhythms. But Bruce was somewhat more eclectic. He somehow balanced a career that saw him forge his own songwriter's career (with Pete Brown as his trusted lyricist) and also return to his jazzier roots. This handsome box set draws together some of the peaks of these years that saw him plow a very musicianly furrow.
Four outfits accompany Bruce on these recordings of live and studio sessions. Each one, apart from his trio work with John Surman and John Hiseman, mixes players from all backgrounds. The 1971 set includes old boss and black magick aficcianado, Graham Bond, on keyboards as well as future session legend, Chris Spedding, on guitar and John Marshall (Soft Machine) on drums. It's a fine mixture of blues standards, Cream classics and solo numbers from Jack's first solo masterpiece, Songs For A Tailor.
By 1974 his restless search for a new band had turned up a stellar cast including Mick Taylor who had recently left the Stones due to his own creative frustrations. Here again the template is just as varied, with Carla Bley (on some questionably dated synth noises) as well as Bruce Gary and Ronnie Leahy. This outfit's flexibility is awesome. turning in knotty numbers including an impromptu version of Tony Williams' Spirit.
By 1976 the fusion monster was out of the box, and Bruce was rubbing shoulders with Simon Phillips (drums) and Tony Hymas (keyboards). Bruce uses the opportunity to air some totally new material while still referencing his past with a great version of Born Under A Bad Sign. By this point the ability of musicians to explore was being hampered by an industry more concerned with fiscal returns and niche marketing. A round peg in a square world, Bruce's days as a legend were now numbered. More's the pity.
Standing alone in all this are the two sessions completed for Radio 3's Jazz In Britain with Surman and Hiseman. While Hiseman crossed the jazz rock boundaries himself with Coliseum, Surman's out and out jazz chops certainly allow no room for blues cliches. Bruce's bass is wonderfully rich and at home here, with his fretless explorations on the latter session in 1978 proving that he could so easily have become a bona fide pillar of British jazz. It's interesting to compare their 1971 version of Powerhouse Sod - a staple of Bruce's live sets for years- compared with the live version from the same year. The first is a fabulously intuitive piece of free blowing, while the second is a fuzzed out monster. listeners can take their pick as to which one is preferable.
It seemed that Jack's very musical erudition would prove to be his undoing. Like Jeff Beck, his restlessness and commitment overrode the commercial gains to be won by the more mainstream Clapton. As a bass player it was always going to be difficult to gather the same plaudits as a hotshot guitarist, yet this excellent collection proves what a versatile player and utterly distinctive singer Bruce really is. It also proves that for a brief spell in the '70s, it was still possible to explore multiple genres without fear of losing or confusing an audience yet to be hung up on styles and fashion.