The Bass Great (1943–2014) Leaves Behind A Legacy Of Passion & Innovation
Jack Bruce, more than anything else, was a force of nature. Infused with the blues in his soul and the art of classical music and jazz in his ears, he pushed the boundaries of rock & roll and the bass guitar far forward. Ever the risk-taker, he left it all onstage and in the studio, with every performance and recording. That spirit, along with his considerable musical contributions as a composer, vocalist, bassist, multi-instrumentalist, and bandleader, is what Bruce leaves for the rest of us. He also left a lot of insight in the pages of Bass Player (as well as Guitar Player and Guitar World), through interviews with eager journalists like myself, founding BP Editor Jim Roberts, Freddy Villano, Jimmy Leslie, and others. In tribute, we revisit some of his finer print moments. In addition, Jim Roberts offers his remembrance and selected discography; Ed Friedland analyzes Bruce’s style and his approach on “Crossroads” (see page 68); and on the gear side, we check in with Warwick R&D Manager Marcus Spangler. So cue up your Cream or Cuicoland Express tracks and join us for a look back at Jack.
Having come from classical vocal, piano, and cello training, and then playing jazz on the upright in his early years, Bruce had a keen understanding of music history and the role of the bass.
As the bass player in a band, you are faced with the responsibility of being functional. You can’t just play up high all night and do all the clever stuff. The bass player has to be a catalyst, and make everyone else—the singer, the guitarist—sound good. And you’ve also got to make them play better than they can, by bringing the very best out of them. The main role is to be part of the rhythm section and get that pulse happening between the bass and the bass drum.
When it comes to bass, what I play doesn’t have to be busy or fast, but it has to be melodic. The earliest example of that is J.S. Bach. He wrote fabulous bass parts which every bass player should study, because they perfectly illustrate how to be functional and melodic at the same time.
A Question Of Time
Playing everything from blues to free jazz, with drummers ranging from Ginger Baker and Tony Williams to Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez and Cindy Blackman, gave Bruce a keen insight into time and feel.
I’ve always subscribed to Charles Mingus’ concept of time, which he called rotary perception. It says there’s a constant, metronomic time in your head. When you have a medium tempo, you play right in the middle of the meter in your mind; when you have a fast tempo you play slightly in front of the meter; and when you have a slow blues or ballad, you play slightly behind the meter. The key is the ability to move within that meter. You can slow down or speed up phrases or accents, all while your internal time is constant.
Bruce’s first bass was an upright, and his early heroes manned the double bass and dabbled in the blues.
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. Percy Heath was the first amazing bass player I saw. My father took me to see the Modern Jazz Quartet when I was 11, and the presence and warmth of his sound was the reason I became a bass player. My upright mentors were Charles Mingus, Ray Brown, Jimmy Blanton, Scott LaFaro, and Charlie Haden.
I was a jazzer who knew the blues through Charles Mingus. I wanted to be Scott LaFaro—that’s why I kept getting fired on the double bass. But the interesting thing about Mingus was he wrote jazz that was country–blues oriented, whereas most jazz had elements of big-city blues, like Kansas City and Chicago. Mingus, for some reason, went back to the Delta Blues, which was what I loved. I also loved Willie Dixon; he was the Einstein of the blues.
Discovering the bass guitar was a pivotal moment in Bruce’s career, and one that would have an equally dramatic impact on the history of the young instrument.
I discovered the electric bass guitar in 1962. There was a guy called Roy Babbington in a band called the 4 Macs. He was the first person I saw playing the instrument who made me think it’s not all that bad.
My first bass guitar was a hollowbody Guild with black nylon strings I borrowed from a music store, after Chris Blackwell asked me to do an EP with the fine Jamaican jazz guitarist Ernest Ranglin [Ernest Ranglin & the G.B.’s, 1964, Black Swan]. I fell in love with it, and I decided to switch there and then. I thought, Wow, this is easy—and it’s loud. Wait till I play it with Ginger! Then I bought myself a Japanese bass called a Top Ten, which kept electrocuting me onstage.
Around that time, I heard James Jamerson, and it turned my electric bass playing around; it turned everybody’s bass playing around. I started striving to play melodies on the instrument—to play lead bass, in other words. That’s what I do now, while maintaining the bass’s function as an anchor.
From Jamerson’s impact to the odd six-string bass tuned like a guitar, Jack was Fender-wise before turning to Gibson.
When I first started in Cream I played a Fender Bass VI because the band I’d been in, the Graham Bond Organisation, had no guitarist after John McLaughlin left. So I used it to take guitar-like solos. With Eric in Cream, I didn’t need those two high strings anymore. Another reason was I liked to bend my low E string as much as a tone and a half, and the VI didn’t lend itself to that.
In those days there was really only the Fender Bass. I loved it, but I wanted to make whatever I was doing my own. So I deliberately tried to find the most opposite-sounding instrument; I tried a Danelectro Longhorn, and then I found the Gibson EB-3. It was small and it had a distorted kind of sound, so it cut through. Having played the string bass, I wanted to get a personal sound. But this was a bass guitar, so I used light-gauge La Bellas and bent the strings like a guitar player.
As with most cherished vintage rock tones, Jack’s was the result of inferior equipment and youthful zeal.
It’s funny about my buzzy, growling, distorted sound becoming popular, because it was me trying to be loud with bad equipment, with Marshalls that had only one speaker working. But gradually I began to like that sound, and I used the fact that there was distortion.
Distortion was the sound of then. It was very hard-driven for various reasons. I think when I did “Apostrophe” 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 I deliberately go for.
For some of the heavier-sounding tracks [on A Question of Time], I left the control room and stood in front of my amp so I could see and feel the speakers, which is important—it keeps you in contact with your notes.
I Feel Free
The second chapter of Bruce’s bass career was written on fretless bass, and he also discussed his technique and tone settings.
I got a fretless Plexiglas bass from Dan Armstrong in 1976, and I realized that I should be playing fretless. The first fretless I fell in love with was built by Stuart Spector, and I had an Aria. Then I discovered Warwick in 1985, and I’ve been with them ever since. I like playing fretless bass because you can approach notes vocally and find interesting little quarter-tones. It was like going back to my upright roots.
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. They’re red LED lights, and certain lighting situations cancel that color right out. Then you’re on your own.
The key to good intonation is practice. There’s no shortcut, is there? 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 there’s no magical solution. Practice, man. Get in the woodshed.
On my Warwick fretless, I back off a bit on the neck pickup, for some bite; I keep the active tone knobs basically flat; and I have the volume up only halfway, because I play pretty hard.
I pluck with my two right-hand fingers, alternating, and occasionally with my thumb. On my left hand, when I started playing short-scale basses, I went from upright technique, with no 3rd [left-hand] finger, to using all four fingers. I’ve also gotten back into my veena [a stringed instrument from India]. Much of my bass playing with Cream came from playing veena during that time—going back and forth with the index finger, à la Jamerson or Chuck Rainey. I did that a lot for a tremolo effect.
Top & Bottom
Bruce launched the concept of “covering the top and the bottom,” something he loved doing. Of course, it meant having to deal with singing and playing independent parts.
I very much enjoy being the top and bottom at the same time. It gives you a tremendous opportunity to be a catalyst; being the bass player and singer gives me two chances to make that happen.
The first time I had a problem with it 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.
In later years, Bruce jokingly referred to Cream as Da Creams, in a nod to the band’s commercial success and supergroup status. In our pages he discussed the trio’s live and studio dichotomy, his bass approach, and other reflections.
There were two sides to the band. Once we got to eight tracks on the second album [Disraeli Gears], we saw the possibilities of the studio, with overdubs and my ability to play keyboards—while live, we saw the opportunity to achieve something completely different. Ultimately, I believe Cream will be remembered for the songs. In a sense, the band lost its way with the long jams, and that became a sort of albatross.
My concept during live Cream jams was to start off supporting Eric, all the while playing with Ginger, and then I would build and almost goad Eric to reach the heights of his playing—and when that happened, I would take off, as well. Every song was different. If you think of the first live version of “Crossroads” [Wheels of Fire]—which was maybe the best example of what the band was like live then—we start up high and stay up high. On others, like “Spoonful,” we were trying to get this primeval big vibration that just lasts. I would use 5ths, chords, and countermelodies to fatten things up, because when Eric would play high, above my bass line, it left a lot of space in the middle. But it was with more of a lead-bass attitude than my approach now.
The great aspect of recording is you have time to work out the bass lines. You perfect the part on run-throughs. “Badge” is a good example; we had the whole day to get it down—it was the most number of takes we ever did. My goal was always to create a bass line where, if you took away or changed one note, the whole song would collapse. I tried the carve the part out of the music, like a statue, so that I knew it would last.
I don’t want to give the impression that people were falling all over themselves to record “White Room” or “Sunshine of Your Love.” Nobody believed in them. People like [Atlantic Records founder] Ahmet Ertegun told me, “Eric should be the lead singer and the writer, and you are just the bass player.” So I cried in the corner while they came up with “Strange Brew,” which was actually “Hey Laudy Mama” with a new song grafted on. The only reason my songs were done was because Eric couldn’t come up with any songs. After Cream, Ertegun said, “You’ve got to get a couple of guys and go do that again,” and I said, “No, I want to get involved in the jazz-fusion thing.”
BP got to sit down with Bruce between Cream’s 2005 U.K. and U.S. reunion shows.
I was astonished at how the band sounded at Royal Albert Hall. It felt really fresh and natural—that was what amazed us all, from the start of rehearsals. It sounded different; it sounded like now. It reflected how much we’ve grown and how much we’ve brought back to the band from all the projects we’ve done. I would say, with certain reservations, that it’s a better band now. Our time and feel is better and we’ve matured; we’re not trying to prove anything to anyone or each other. There’s a lot more respect and honesty.
At the Royal Albert Hall shows I realized my playing has changed more than I ever thought. I found myself playing this sort of flamenco bass style, with strums and chords and drones, not just lines. It just kind of happened, as a way of fulfilling the role I feel I have in the band now. A good example is the solo sections of “N.S.U,” “Deserted Cities of the Heart,” and “Badge.” Because it’s a trio, it’s almost like I’m playing a big rhythm guitar—as opposed to the first time around, when I played a more lead-bass style.
Once In A Lifetime
Bruce cherished his performances and one album with Tony Williams’ cutting-edge fusion group, Lifetime.
Lifetime was in many ways a high spot for me. Cream was, too, but you could say Lifetime was a later version of what Cream was doing. I was very proud to play with the late, great Tony Williams, and Larry [Young, organist] was an absolute genius, one of the very few I’ve worked with. He’s like Coltrane on organ. I’d have to say it was the most amazing band I was ever a part of. It was way ahead of its time; it was also ahead of the technology of the time. We were playing really loud and the sound and recording equipment couldn’t handle it.
Bruce’s range as a composer was remarkable, from rock and blues classics and singer/songwriter tone poems, to forward-thinking jazz and Latin creations and unreleased attempts at operas and string quartets.
The kind of music I love is contrapuntal, as opposed to block chords. I like moving parts. Even the drums should play melodies. It should be a whole bunch of melodies that go together to form one unique sound.
I think every writer has about three ideas—it doesn’t matter if you’re Beethoven or me. You get them when you’re about 11, and you just rework them.
I’m always searching for new song forms, as opposed to an eight- or 16-bar structure, or an AABA shape. That’s what I’ve been doing for many years: defining my own musical language. I have my own harmonic and melodic structure, my own scales that I’ve invented, and my own rhythms.
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.
I tend to write in my head and then I’ll sit down at the piano, but if it’s something more riff-oriented, 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.
Ever the plucking prophet, Bruce dropped numerous pearls of wisdom in his interviews.
The basis of music—the very first thing you have to have—is self-expression.
As far as I’m concerned, all great music has to have that blues element.
The Lord sends things to try you, to test you, and you have to overcome them in order to prove that you’re worthy of the power that you have, which is called “music.”
There’s freedom in a capitalist society. You’ve got the freedom to starve to death if you don’t do something that you can sell.
There have to be artists willing to go out on a limb in order for the music to grow and go somewhere new.
After experimentation and tonal turmoil in the earlier half of his career, Bruce settled in nicely on the gear front, via long-term alliances with Warwick, Hartke, and S.I.T. strings. Jack met his first fretless Warwick Thumb Bass in a Hamburg music store, in 1985. He fell in love, eventually teaming with the company in 1988, and releasing his first signature Thumb (based on a few modifications he made with Warwick founder Hans-Peter Wilfer). Bruce’s full-on signature Thumb came in 1992. Recalls Warwick R&D Manager Marcus Spangler, “Jack wanted a warm fretless tone, but with a lot of clarity in the notes. The instrument had a Brazilian rosewood body and fingerboard, a wenge and bubinga neck, active MEC J/J pickups with two-way [bass and treble] electronics, and Jack requested LED side dot markers [the fingerboard was unlined].” Bruce’s next key model was the Gibson EB-3-nodding CRB built in 2005 for the Cream reunion. Fretless and neck-through-body, like the Thumb Bass, the solid mahogany body was changed to bubinga with hollow routing to make it lighter. Then 2010 brought an upgrade to his “irreplaceable” ’92 Thumb Bass, as well as a new model dubbed the Survivor, with a very light mahogany body and Bruce’s always-preferred rounder neck profile. Spangler laughs, “We were at a restaurant, on our second bottle of wine, and Jack said, ‘You know, this bass will survive me; let’s call it the Survivor!’ He was a funny, cool, fun guy, and it was a real honor to make the Survivor with him. Jack was family at Warwick, and we all miss him.”
Bruce’s other mainstays were his S.I.T. strings (Nickel Rock Brites RB50105L, .050–.105) and his Hartke rig (HA3500 head with 410XL and 115XL cabinets). Hartke developed its aluminum-cone speakers with Jack and Jaco in mind, and they became his signature sound. He tried other amps, but noted, “They just didn’t sound like me.”
A Jack Bruce Selected Discography
By Jim Roberts
As a solo artist, band member, and sideman, Jack Bruce played on hundreds of recordings. The discography compiled by Bob Elliott for Harry Shapiro’s biography Jack Bruce: Composing Himself [Jawbone Press] runs for 12 pages. Where to begin?
If you can find it—and afford it—2008’s six-CD box set Can You Follow? [Esoteric] offers a retrospective of Jack’s work that spans from 1962 to 2003. Short of that, the best place to start is with the four-CD Cream box set, Those Were the Days [Polydor], which includes all of the tracks from the trio’s 1967– 69 albums—Fresh Cream, Disraeli Gears,Wheels of Fire, and Goodbye—as well as additional live recordings, singles, a half-dozen demos, and the infamous Falstaff Beer commercial. Then listen to the two CDs from the Cream reunion, Royal Albert Hall London May 2-3-5-6 2005 [Reprise], and watch the DVD of those shows. The contrast between the original recordings and the new versions is fascinating.
After you’ve digested Cream, move on to Jack’s other work. Here is a selected (and highly subjective) list of his notable recordings. The labels and release dates are for the original albums; several of the early ones have been remastered and re-released. There are many other valuable and interesting recordings, and I think it’s true that just about anything with Jack Bruce on it is worth hearing.
As a solo artist
Songs for a Tailor [1969, Polydor]
Harmony Row [1971, Polydor]
Out of the Storm [1974, RSO]
Willpower: A Twenty Year Retrospective [1989, Polydor]
A Question of Time [1989, Epic,]
Somethin Els [1993, CMP]
Cities of the Heart [1994, CMP]
Shadows in the Air [2001, Sanctuary]
Silver Rails [2014, Esoteric]
As a band member or sideman
Tony Willams Lifetime, Turn It Over [1970, Polydor]
Carla Bley & Paul Haines, Escalator Over the Hill [1971, JCOA]
West, Bruce & Laing, Why Dontcha [1972, Columbia]
Frank Zappa, Apostrophe [1974, Discreet]
Jack Bruce, Robin Trower, Bill Lordan, B.L.T. [1981, Chrysalis]
Kip Hanrahan, Desire Develops an Edge [1983, American Clavé]
BBM, Around the Next Dream [1994, Virgin]
Jack Bruce, Robin Trower, Gary Husband, Seven Moons Live [2009, RUF]
Spectrum Road, Spectrum Road [2012, Palmetto]
JACK BRUCE: AN APPRECIATION OF THE STYLE
By Jim Roberts
FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, THE BRITISH journalist Chris Welch wrote a book called Cream: The Legendary Sixties Supergroup. Welch had followed the trio closely since its formation in 1966, and his book had a wealth of information about Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, and Eric Clapton and their brief but spectacular two-year stint as Cream. Welch’s chronicle was supplemented by three essays that illuminated the playing styles of the musicians. I was gratified to be invited to write about Jack Bruce’s bass playing, and in eight pages I tried to show why Jack’s approach to the instrument was so innovative and so important. After outlining the creative elements that shaped Jack’s style, I concluded that “there’s one overarching element that united them all: joy.”
It was almost the right word. His playing was certainly high-spirited and exuberant. But looking back today, I think a better word would be passion. Jack never did anything halfway. Whether he was singing, composing, or playing; whether he was building a solo work or contributing to another artist’s project; whether he was engaged in a formal interview or just telling a story—and, unfortunately, when he was indulging—Jack was fully committed.
For younger players who have studied and emulated so many marvelous contemporary bassists, it may be a bit hard to grasp what a revolutionary Jack Bruce was. They may not know that he was classically trained and could play cello and piano as well as upright bass, or that he had been an acclaimed vocal soloist as a child in Glasgow. They may not know that he came to electric bass and popular music from jazz, bringing with him the sensibility of a fearless improviser. In Cream, he didn’t just bend notes and stretch harmonies—he pushed the limits of what was possible on his instrument.
As Jack told me in a 1993 BASS PLAYER interview, soon after he was asked to play electric bass at a recording session, he discovered the work of Motown’s James Jamerson. “Listening to those records, I began to see the possibilities of the bass guitar,” he said. “It wasn’t limited to playing root notes four to the bar; it could actually be a melody instrument—which it very much was in the hands of James.”
And in the hands of Jack. He began to develop his unique style while playing a Fender Bass VI in the Graham Bond Organisation in the mid 1960s. He was trying, he later explained, “to play the bass guitar like a guitar, as opposed to a bass.” Ginger Baker, the group’s musical director, was so impressed with Jack’s efforts that he fired him. Thus began a long and tumultuous relationship.
Bruce’s sound and style matured in Cream. As the group’s primary songwriter, his material gave him the freedom to play melodic bass lines that complemented Clapton’s guitar parts and flowed through Baker’s jazz-inflected drumming. He abandoned the hard-toplay Bass VI for 4-strings, at first a Danelectro Longhorn and then the Gibson EB-3 that became his trademark. His parts pushed forward relentlessly and were almost startling in their melodic and rhythmic ingenuity.
One example: The verses of “Tales of Brave Ulysses” [Disraeli Gears] ride on a descending bass line of D, C, B, and Bb. As the song develops, Jack begins to explore an ascending D-minor line that drops from D to F and climbs to G and Bb. It’s a simple idea, if you understand counterpoint and harmony—but with the possible exception of Jamerson or Paul McCartney, it’s doubtful that any electric bassist of that era could have come up with something so clever and powerful. Jack used this contrapuntal idea again, with even more energy and variation, on “White Room” [Wheels of Fire]. And he liked that ascending D-minor riff so much that he later wrote a whole song around it, “Life on Earth,” which was on his 1989 album A Question of Time.
After Cream’s breakup, Jack resisted the temptation of joining another rock “supergroup,” opting instead for a series of artistically ambitious (if not wildly successful) solo projects and collaborations with a wide range of musicians, from Leslie West to Tony Williams to Kip Hanrahan. He moved to a fretless Warwick bass, which gave him even greater freedom to express the blues-based concepts that were the core of his harmonic repertoire.
In interviews, Jack frequently spoke of “blues feeling” as a key element of his style as both a player and composer. American blues music was, of course, hugely important to him—he cited Willie Dixon as a major influence—but he found that blues feeling in much other music, from Scottish folk songs to Pakistani qawwali music. “It’s difficult to talk about what it is,” he told me in 1993, “but, I mean, I know what it is.”
At the celebrated Cream reunion in 2005, Jack once again found expression for the “blues feeling” that he had explored with Clapton and Baker nearly 40 years before. Unfazed by the health problems that had made his life a struggle, he revisited (and, being Jack, expanded upon) his original work with Cream, playing both a Gibson EB-1 and his fretless Warwick. Not everything was great, and the old conflicts with Baker resurfaced, but much of the music from the reunion concerts stands with Bruce’s best work.
After I interviewed Jack in 1993, we stayed in touch. He expressed gratitude for the dedication in my book How the Fender Bass Changed the World, where I stated that “[his] brilliant playing in Cream inspired me to become a bass player.” Later, when I recalled the ’93 article in a 2012 column, I sent a copy of the issue to Jack, not sure if the U.K. address I had was still valid. Shortly after, I received an email that said: “It was very kind of you to send me a copy of your article. It brought back some very happy memories of some great times.”
It was the last time I heard from Jack, and rumors about his declining health circulated even as Silver Rails, his final solo album, was released. It was ominously prophetic when he sang “the dance of death is on its way,” but John Symon Asher Bruce, as always, gave it everything he had—passionate to the end.