Blues You Can Use: Jack Bruce at the Crossroads (Part 1)

With the passing of jack bruce, The world has lost a great voice, an artist and musician Whose work shaped the lives of several generations.
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With the passing of jack bruce, the world has lost a great voice, an artist and musician whose work shaped the lives of several generations. For those of us in the world of bass, a founding father has been laid to rest. Jack boldly went where no bass player had gone before, and opened the door for many to follow.

With a legacy stretching back to the earliest days of the ’60s British blues and jazz scene (see Blues You Can Use, June ’13), Jack’s work with the supergroup Cream became the cornerstone of rock/blues/jazz bass playing. During their brief run from 1966–68, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Bruce cross-bred their heavy blues influence with psychedelic pop, producing four seminal recordings: Fresh Cream, Disraeli Gears, Wheels of Fire, and Goodbye. This month’s example, “Crossroads,” is taken from the live half of Wheels, which was the world’s first platinumselling double album. Written by blues pioneer Robert Johnson, Cream’s 1968 live version of “Crossroads” has become a roadmap for rock/blues explorers ever since.

Example 1 is a close approximation of Bruce’s playing under the first two choruses of guitar solo. The first three vocal verses have passed with Jack being relatively cooperative, but dropping several hints of what is to come. As soon as the band opens the gate to the solo, he lets it rip with a big swoop up to his high A, on the downbeat of bar 1! When you consider the edict of “stay low and in the groove” that dictates most bass behavior, this is truly a middle-finger moment. Bruce gets back to ground on the “e” of beat three, but then he anticipates bar 2’s quick IV chord, setting off a chain of rhythmic displacement that includes yet another war-whoop up to the high A, this time anticipating the downbeat of bar three. Bruce straightens out the rhythm for bars 3 and 4, but then he lays into the IV chord with a classic syncopated drop down to the lower 3rd (F#) with a chromatic run up to the 5th. Bars 6 and 7 are textbook eighth-note patterns that contrast the return of the syncopated drop-line in bar 8, this time as a route from the I chord to the V. Jack hits the low E in bar 9 but quickly jumps back to the middle register where his Gibson EB-3 has the most growl, with a standard walkup pattern from the IV to the I chord in bar 10. An A minor pentatonic riff takes us down through the turnaround before the second chorus.

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Let’s take a look at the halfway point: While Clapton was doing a great job “being God” (as Bruce once put it), the real excitement is in the rhythm section. The first chorus had some wobbly moments, but Baker held everything together much like Tony Williams did with the Miles Davis Quintet a few years earlier. While maintaining the backbeat pulse, Baker opens up the bar lines and lets Bruce regain his footing after some of his stunts. The energy is high, the bass is hot and grunty, as the trio stands fearlessly on the precipice of jazz-rock fusion.

In the second chorus, Bruce eschews the quick IV chord and hangs on the I with three bars of nasty business. His aggressive bends on the G string sound like the mating call of the woolly mammoth, but the repetition aids in grounding the music. Bar 16’s pentatonic fill sets up a striking displaced two-note staccato riff that takes us through the IV chord in bars 17 and 18. The high E on beat one of bar 19 is the apex of this phrase, and begins a long blues-scale run down from the 5th of the I chord to the bottom and back up to the V chord in bar 21. The high octaves on the V chord keep the ball in the air, and for the final kick, Bruce takes it up a whole-step, anticipating the downbeat of the IV chord with the third (F#) and dropping down to the low A for tension release, but still maintaining the anticipated downbeat for the last few bars.

Clipping along at 130 beats per minute, this is an electrifying performance that breaks many rules, and has become a classic—warts and all. In the process of determining which Bruce line to examine, I also checked out the “Crossroads” performance from Cream’s 2005 reunion gig at the Royal Albert Hall. Next month, we’ll look at how Jack’s approach to this exact same spot in the song changed after 37 years!



Ed Friedland plays, writes, and teaches out of his bass base in Austin, Texas.

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Cream, Wheels of Fire [1968, Polydor]