Jack Bruce Roars Back on 'Silver Rails'

July 9, 2014
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From the mid ’60s to the early ’70s, Jack Bruce was as influential to the development of the electric bass in rock & roll as Jimi Hendrix was to the electric guitar. Long before Jaco Pastorius broke all of the rules, Bruce was already forging new paths by breaking away from the simple root–5 patterns typically associated with the instrument at that time. As the bassist and vocalist for Cream, Bruce’s barking tone and freewheeling style revolutionized the way the instrument was used. Peers like Paul McCartney and James Jamerson were also pushing the instrument’s boundaries in the ’60s, but no one embodied what the bass was capable of in a rock band more than Jack Bruce. Cream classics like “Crossroads,” “Strange Brew,” and “Politician” feature an unabashed and bombastic, yet highly musical and adventurous, approach to the instrument. His influence is perhaps best exemplified in the playing styles of bassists who came up the ranks right behind him: players like Geddy Lee, Chris Squire, and Geezer Butler, whose work on Black Sabbath’s first few records is textbook Jack Bruce.

Jack Bruce was born to musical parents in Glasgow, Scotland on May 14, 1943. He received his formal education at Bellahouston Academy and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, where he was awarded a scholarship for cello and composition. He went on to play double bass in dance bands and jazz groups, and in 1962 he joined Alexis Korner’s Blues Inc. In 1963 he formed the seminal Graham Bond Organisation, with guitarist John McLaughlin and drummer Ginger Baker. Three years later he joined John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, which is where he first met Eric Clapton. Soon thereafter Cream was formed—it was Ginger Baker who initially suggested to Jack that they form a trio with Clapton. Cream went on to sell a staggering 35 million albums in just over two years and was awarded the first-ever platinum disc for Wheels of Fire [Atco, 1968].

Bruce recently released Silver Rails, his first solo album since 2003’s More Jack Than God [Sanctuary]. Featuring a stellar cast of guest musicians, including keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Cindy Blackman Santana, and guitarist Robin Trower, Silver Rails is an eclectic collection of songs written in partnership with Jack’s Cream lyricist Pete Brown, amongst others. From the New Orleans-inspired opener, “Candlelight,” to the proto-metal overtones of “Drone,” to the Cream-infused blues progression of “Rusty Lady,” Jack has crafted a record that is sometimes nostalgic, often dark, and always percolating. Five decades on, his bass lines continue to keep things deep and dirty.

How would you describe the music on Silver Rails?

That’s a tricky one. I think it’s a sideways look at the history of me. It’s basically what I’ve been trying to do all my life, which is to write good songs and get some good sounds on an album. I was very fortunate to have Rob Cass, the producer I worked with at Abbey Road. He’s a brilliant guy who did what I wanted. There is a thematic link, musically—songs like “Hidden Cities” and “Drone” are very linked. I think there’s a theme running through it lyrically as well.

Bruce (left) with Leslie West.
It’s been ten years since your last record. What prompted you to make an album now?

I hadn’t really considered making a new studio album until Mark Powell from Esoteric Records approached me. I was quite pleased when he asked, “Do you want to make a new studio album? We can give you a budget.” So, I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” And that was about a year ago. The songs were all written for the album, with the exception of the two revisited songs, “Keep It Down” and “No Surrender.”

There’s a broad range of musical styles. “Candlelight,” for example, is very different from “Drone.”

“Candlelight” has a bit of a New Orleans thing going on. “Drone”? Well, that’s me, the kind of stuff I always end up doing. But I think it’s a little friendlier on this album. When I was young, some of my albums were quite grim and serious. But writing now at my advanced age, I have a kind of ironic sense of humor—looking sideways. I think that’s why nowadays there’s much more brightness in those dark corners.

Despite the varying musical styles, there is cohesiveness to the overall sound. Did you use a core group of musicians?

I used the rhythm section from my blues band, Frank Tontoh on drums and Tony Remy on guitar, and also the horn section. I didn’t hire the piano player because I wanted to do that myself. I also have a bass player in my touring band, but I thought I might as well play the bass myself since it’s cheaper.

Did you write specific songs with the guest musicians in mind?

I definitely wanted the particular guitar players, like Phil Manzanera on “Candlelight.” I worked with him a couple of years ago when we went to Cuba, and I’ve really liked his playing ever since. He just took my little demo away for about a week and came back and played that amazing guitar part. For “Rusty Lady,” I really wanted Robin Trower to play on that because it’s right up his alley.

Do you write on bass?

I tend to write in my head and then I’ll sit down at the piano, but if it’s something like “Rusty Lady” or “Drone,” obviously I’m going to play that on the bass. For the more piano-oriented songs I’ll get the idea and then I’ll home in on the form by sitting down at the piano.

What first attracted you to the bass?

I come from a ridiculously poor background and couldn’t afford any instruments—the only one that was free at my school was this big old tub of a double bass. So I just started playing around with that. And then my dad, who was a great jazz fan, took me to hear a couple of things. The first thing was the Modern Jazz Quartet with Percy Heath on bass, and I couldn’t believe the sound he was getting out of that instrument. Then I heard Ray Brown and was basically hooked. I wanted to become the Scott LaFaro of my time.

When did you transition to electric bass?

A great jazz guitar player from Jamaica named Ernest Ranglin asked me to play on an EP of his [Ernest Ranglin & the G.B.’s, Black Swan, 1964], but he said it had to be a bass guitar, so I simply borrowed one from a music shop and fell in love with it. It was so much easier to carry about—and it was loud.

On 1966’s Fresh Cream, you played a Fender Bass VI before famously adopting the Gibson EB-3.

The Fender Bass VI is quite simply almost impossible to play. I played that in the Graham Bond Organisation, and when John McLaughlin left, we didn’t have a guitar player, so in my innocent, young way I thought, “I’ll get myself a six-string bass.” I tended to play a lot of little guitar licks on it. The first electric bass I ever had was a Japanese Top 20, and it electrocuted me at the 100 Club in London. I thought my number was up—the four strings were burned right across the palm of my hand. It was terrible. After that I got the Bass VI, and then I found the EB-3, which was a great instrument to play with Cream. It’s almost more of a guitar than a bass. That became my thing for a while.

Why was it more like a guitar?

For one, it’s short scale. And I used to play those really light La Bella strings, so I could bend them in the same way that you can bend the strings on the guitar. We were doing these improvisations and I didn’t want to be playing a very big Fender or something; I wanted something I could create my own sound on, something different from what most of the other guys at the time were using.

When did you transition to fretless?

I got a fretless Plexiglas bass from Dan Armstrong in the mid ’70s, and I realized that I should be playing fretless. The first fretless I fell in love with was built by Stuart Spector. And then I discovered Warwick, and I’ve been with them ever since. I love the precision of their instruments. The ones I love most are my fretless Brazilian rosewood Thumb Bass [most Thumb Basses are made of bubinga] and the new Jack Bruce Survivor. I had the idea of making the Survivor look a little like an EB-3, but with Warwick’s precision and technology.

What basses did you use on Silver Rails?

I’m playing a combination of the Brazilian rosewood fretless, the new Signature Series, and my ’50s Gibson EB-1.

Of the three basses, how did you decide on which to use for a particular tune?

Each track suggests the particular bass. For example, the distorted tone of “Drone” shouts out for the EB-1, while the descending vocal in “Reach for the Night” needs the mellowness of the Brazilian rosewood fretless.

Were there any advantages to the 34"-scale Spector and Warwick basses versus the short-scale EB-3?

Well, no. I come from the double bass, so when I switched to the long-scale basses it was very natural for me. It wasn’t a problem for me to play the EB-3, either—I would bend the neck and bounce it off the floor and do all of the silly things you used to do in the ’60s, and it always came back wanting more.

Did playing unlined fretless necks come naturally because of the double bass, too?

Yes, to a certain extent. It’s quite difficult sometimes if you’re singing some high note and you’ve got to hit a convincing bass note and you haven’t got frets. On my fretless bass I have what I call “landing lights” [LEDs], so out of the corner of my eye I can see the shape of the neck. Sometimes it’s difficult because they are red LED lights, and certain lighting situations cancel that color right out. Then you’re on your own.

Do you have any advice for developing one’s intonation on fretless?

Practice. There’s no shortcut, is there? You can’t just say, “Yeah, if you do this it’s going to work.” A lot of people don’t take to it at all. But I think it’s a beautiful thing, especially if you’re singing, because the intonation between the voice and the fretless can be quite interesting. But for anybody starting out, I’ve got no magical solution. Practice, man. Get in the woodshed.

What about the challenges of singing and playing?

The first time I had a problem with that was when Cream did “Politician.” The very first time we did it, we were recording at the BBC. I just had the riff and Pete Brown had written some lyrics. At the time, the BBC had 3-track recording, so the song was improvised and recorded separately—I overdubbed the vocals, in other words. And when I came to play it with the band, I realized I couldn’t. It was simply a matter of working it until I got it, and that was a breakthrough because after that I was able to do a lot more where the vocal and the bass part were in opposition. It’s just like being a drummer and having independence. You don’t want to think about what you’re playing; you just want to feel it. In order to be free with it, it takes a bit of work.

You also use different amps nowadays. Why did you use Marshall guitar amps in the ’60s?

In those days there weren’t a lot of choices for big amps. We nicked the idea of using Marshalls from the Who; they were the first guys I ever saw using those stacks. I think Eric [Clapton] said, “That’s what we should do.” I used different things for a while, like Crown and Gallien-Krueger. Hartke was basically formed to make those speakers with aluminum cones for Jaco and myself. I’ve never gone away from them, because they work for me.

How so?

It’s not that I play that loud—I play very intensely. I’m not a light player. I use a sort of double-bass approach, still to this day, and you need something that’s going to stand up to that.

You had a fairly distorted tone back in the ’60s, less so nowadays. Is that conscious decision?

Distortion was the sound of then. It was very hard-driven for various reasons. I think when I did “Apostrophe” [Apostrophe, DiscReet, 1974] with Frank Zappa, he took that to the next level. It was the fartiest bass sound I ever had. I like it to feel driven, but I don’t like too much distortion, unless it’s something like in the song “Drone” when I deliberately go for that.

Speaking of “Drone,” what are you using on that tune?

That’s a very small Hartke amp, just one 12" speaker, and the distortion effect is from a guy in Japan who came up to me after a concert once and handed it to me. I’m still using it. I don’t know what his name is or what it’s called, but it’s great. Never look a gift horse in the mouth!

Felix Pappalardi produced Cream’s Disraeli Gears [Atco, 1967]. Having a similar background, did you two hit it off?

We really hit it off, because we were so similar in many ways. We were both rock bass players who came from a classical background. He played viola and pocket trumpet and different things. We did a lot of the arrangements on the Cream songs that actually had arrangements. When you hear things like recorders, trumpets, viola, Mellotron—that would be Felix and me. He also worked on my first solo album, Songs for a Tailor [Atco, 1969].

As a classically trained composer and musician turned rock & roll improvisationalist, what’s your view of the bass guitar’s role in music?

One of the functions of the bass is to make the song sound good, and if you’re just playing all over, it’s not going to work. Even with Cream, I wasn’t really playing a lot of notes on the recordings. I had to be relatively functional, but there are very creative ways you can do that. Look at James Jamerson, for example—he was a very melodic player. That’s what I’ve always aimed for.

INFO

LISTEN

Jack Bruce, Silver Rails [Esoteric Antenna, 2014]


EQUIP

Basses Warwick Jack Bruce JB3 Signature Survivor Bass, fretless Warwick Thumb NT, 1950s Gibson EB-1
Rig Hartke HA3500 Bass Amplifier, Hartke 410XL & 115XL Series Cabinets
Strings S.I.T. medium gauge round-wound strings (.050–.105)

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