Blues You Can Use: Jack Bruce at the Crossroads (Part 2)

This month, we take another look at Jack Bruce’s work with the supergroup Cream, this time from the 2005 reunion concerts at the Royal Albert Hall.
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THIS MONTH, WE TAKE ANOTHER LOOK AT Jack Bruce’s work with the supergroup Cream, this time from the 2005 reunion concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. Last month we examined what Jack played behind Eric Clapton’s first two solo choruses on the Robert Johnson classic “Crossroads.” Taken from 1968’s live Wheels of Fire album, Bruce exhibited the fire and abandon that typified the trio’s hard-charging approach to the blues, and delineated the outer boundaries of what you could get away with in the idiom. This time, we investigate his playing on the same tune, in the same spot of the arrangement—under Clapton’s first two choruses of solo—but 37 years later.

While there is video of the group from its early years, I found it fascinating and instructional to watch Jack play this month’s example, as the 2005 concerts are well documented on film. There are several notable differences between the two performances of this song, one being the more relaxed tempo. In 1968, the track clocked in at 130 bpm, which seems frantic and wild compared to 2005’s more stately 120 bpm. At the slower tempo, the groove solidifies and gains weight—the power of raw youth supplanted by 37 years’ worth of life experience.

In contrast to the aerial attack launched from the very first note of the 1968 version, Jack focuses on more repetitive parts that anchor the feel, a more mature approach that is accompanied by a distinctly deeper tone. The sound of a Gibson EB-3 roaring through a Marshall stack was Bruce’s calling card in the late ’60s, and the face-ripping tone undoubtedly played a large role in the “lead bass” approach he was known for. For this portion of the reunion shows, Bruce played his fretless Warwick Thumb NT (which he acquired in 1986), through a massive Hartke rig with capabilities far beyond 1968 standards. Playing with a thicker texture, Jack’s less volatile playing suits the occasion and offers us a glimpse into how time can refine a player’s approach.

Example 1 is a reasonable approximation of Jack’s line through the first two choruses of guitar solo, and he opens up with a classic minor-pentatonic pattern that echoes the main guitar riff. Jack sticks to this hammer-filled lick for the bulk of the chorus, but he lets a little fur fly in bar 6 with a series of hammered 16th-notes between the octave and b7th of the IV chord. In bar 9, he lays out the E minor pentatonic scale over the V chord, starting and ending on the open E string; then he transposes it to D for the IV chord in bar 10. Jack consistently uses open strings as anchor points for this line, which hints at his roots as an upright bass player, and helps to keep his intonation perfect—no small feat when you’re playing fretless bass in a large concert setting. He closes out the first 12 bars with more of the main motif, carrying it into the second chorus, until he uses a time-honored walk-up to the IV chord in bar 17. Next, he pumps out two bars of a steady eighth-note box pattern (1–8–b7–5) that leads back to the main riff in bars 19-20, with a few extra hammers thrown in for good measure. Jack takes the E box shape down to D for the last V– IV cadence, but the final measures are obscured by a very forward drum fill—beware of Mr. Baker indeed!

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Contrasting these two performances involves more than simply looking at the notes played, the tempo, and the gear. The intervening 37-year span crammed dog-years’ worth of achievements, life-changing performances, hardships, triumphs, and survival for all three members of Cream. While these two recordings form a unique bracket in Jack Bruce’s career, neither was the terminus—I gave his pre- Cream work a brief look in my June ’13 column, and the fuzz-laden, 11/8 groove of “Drone” from his 2014 solo CD Silver Rails tells us that Mr. Bruce had no intention of leaving this Earth quietly. It is a sad fact that these days, our early rock heroes are a dying breed, and with the passing of Jack Bruce, the world has lost one of the great originals of the electric bass and one of the premier voices of rock & roll.



Ed “the Bass Whisperer” Friedland plays, writes, and teaches out of his bass base in Austin, Texas.


Cream, Royal Albert Hall London May 2-3-5-6, 2005 [2005, Reprise]