For a bassist best known for the three tumultuous years he scorched the rock and roll world with Cream, Jack Bruce sure got around.
He played jazz. He played blues. He was a master collaborator and a headstrong bandleader. He was also, if we bought into the hedonistic tales of his 2010 autobiography Composing Himself, a complete maniac prone to a level of self-abuse that should have claimed his life a generation or two ago.
The Scottish born Bruce was a composer, a potent singer and, above all, an absolutely soaring electric bassist. He was, in short, the consummate rock artist at a time in pop history when artistic discovery was everywhere.
He died Saturday at the age of 71 and left a library of music so stylistically far reaching that whittling it down to even a few highlights is impossible. But let’s try anyway.
From the Cream days, I’ll take 1968’s mighty Wheels of Fire over everything else the band did, even the psychedelic studio masterwork Disraeli Gears. A double album divided evenly between studio and concert recordings, this was the sound of Cream unleashed – a volcanic blues mutation that knew no boundaries.
But there was so much more. Bruce’s first three solo records were all classics. 1969’s Songs for a Tailor showed off his songcraft, 1970’s Things We Like echoed the thunderous jazz extremes Bruce briefly explored in Tony Williams’ Lifetime and 1971’s Harmony Row radically reinvented Cream’s power trio design.
There were scores of other delights, as well, including his recordings with guitarist Robin Trower, the 2012 self-titled album from fusion supergroup Spectrum Road and the fine 2014 solo work Silver Rails.
But the record I reached for last night though was a sleeper, a 1974 solo session called Out of the Storm. It was cut on American shores during the aftermath of the short-lived West, Bruce & Lang trio (which teamed the bassist with two thirds of Mountain). It was a true FM classic, a mix of prog and jazz drenched melodies iced by some of the most otherworldly singing Bruce ever committed to a recording.
I saw Bruce play only once. He played a December 1989 concert at Bogart’s in Cincinnati with Cream drummer Ginger Baker. Unwilling to play anything but old Cream material, Baker sat out the entire first half of the show. But Bruce, who was promoting another underappreciated gem of an album (A Question of Time) carried on with unflinching joy and confidence. In a way, his performance stance approximated that magnificent sound he summoned from the bass. Both were bold, distinct and fearless.