critic’s pick 52

jack bruce: spirit

jack bruce: spirit

No one will ever be able to accurately accuse Jack Bruce of modesty. Be it his musicianship (a fire-and-brimstone bass guitarist though an often overwrought vocalist), temperament (he was rumored to have once ripped a sink from a wall in order to hurl it at one-time musical accomplice Graham Bond) and ego (he told Rolling Stone magazine two decades ago he had devised “my own musical language” and more recently claimed to have composed music while in a coma). Onstage and off – sometimes, way, way off – Bruce was a defining, over-the-top rock ‘n’ roll presence from a by-gone generation.

But Bruce also possessed a sense of musical daring that regularly crossed genres into jazz to, eventually, back up much of his artistic boasting. On Spirit, a splendid new collection of five BBC performances spread out over three discs – the breadth of Bruce’s career after his tenure in the iconic power trio Cream is fleshed out with often stunning clarity and immediacy.

Two of the BBC sets have been issued before – a September 1971 outing with Bond, the extraordinary British guitarist Chris Spedding, Soft Machine drummer John Marshall and saxophonist Art Themen, as well as a June 1975 set by the then-highly-hyped Jack Bruce Band for the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test.

Those earlier recordings sport dramatically inferior sound quality. In fact, Spirit is worth purchasing just for the warmth and detail that now emerge in keyboardist Carla Bley’s contributions to the ’75 concert. Cream/Bruce die-hards may go on about the virtues of the initial releases. But as Spirit seems to be designed more for the curious than the completist, the ’71 and ’75 recordings are, as presented here, very much new finds.

The ’71 set finds Bruce working a power trio format within a quintet-size band. The drive of Spedding’s guitar work and the looseness of the compositions (especially the jam-hearty Powerhouse Sod, which Bruce would soon play regularly with ex-Mountain-eers Leslie West and Corky Lang) result in wide-scale, celebratory boogie.

The real surprise is on the ’75 set, one of the few live documents of the short-lived Jack Bruce Band with Bley and guitarist Mick Taylor, who had just exited the Rolling Stones. Even pop-savvy material like Without a Word reflects a jazz sensibility. But a mixture of denser songs from what remains Bruce’s most overlooked solo album (1974’s Out of the Storm) and the first of two regal treatments of Spirit‘s title tune (penned by the late jazz drummer and one-time Bruce boss Tony Williams) defines the band’s brief lifespan.  Spirit is reprised on an April 1977 performance rooted more in pop, fusion and funk.

Finally there are improvisatory excursions with British free-jazz saxophonist John Surman pulled from performances in August 1971 and September 1978. Neither set betrays the times. The interplay between Surman, Bruce and drummer Jon Hiseman, though exhibited in sets cut seven years apart, unravels without a trace of pop. It instead rolls with alert swing that that never stays settled for long.

Bruce’s playing has more of a rubbery, Jaco Pastorius-style bounce on the ’78 recordings, although one is at odds to say who influenced who here. What remains, though, are unspoiled portraits of progression in how the electric bass bridged rock and jazz. More exactly, Spirit presents an artistic intellect as vast and inventive as the ego that has too often overshadowed it.

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