Jack Bruce's British Blues

As a member of the English group Cream, Bruce became one of the most high-profile bassists of his generation
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WHILE EXAMINING THE WORK OF GREAT BLUES BASSISTS of the past, let’s not forget our brethren from across the pond, in particular, the contributions of British blues players. The influence of American blues on the U.K. music scene was pivotal in the development of rock & roll; virtually every famous British rock band got its start by copping tunes by Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, as well as the first wave of American rockers such as Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley

This month’s focus is on Jack Bruce, who as a member of the English group Cream, became one of the most high-profile bassists of his generation. Along with bandmates Eric Clapton and drum maniac Ginger Baker, the trio forged a style heavily soaked in the blues tradition, with a big spoonful of psychedelic sauce thrown in for good measure. While Bruce’s work with Cream has been well examined over the years, I thought it would be fun to look at some of his earlier work with the Graham Bond Organisation, a jazz/blues outfit that also featured future Cream percussionist Baker.

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The recording of “Big Boss Man” from the band’s 1964 recording Live at Klook’s Kleek is as raw as it gets in terms of audio quality and performance, but it gives an interesting peek into the earliest moments of blues/rock fusion, and is prototypical of the treatment many of the blues classics would receive in the coming decade. The classic Jimmy Reed version of this tune features a straightforward country blues shuffle—essentially half-notes playing a simple root-5 line, like in Ex 1. But over the years, this song has received several different treatments, ranging from the pumping straight rock offered up by the Yardbirds (with Eric Clapton on guitar), to the lazy shuffle of the Grateful Dead’s version. The bass line in particular has been variable throughout the many recordings of this tune—some choose to stay close to the original country feel, while some approach it with a shuffle rhythm played in varying patterns—either box-shaped or a “boogie” line (1-3-5-6-8-6-5-3). One common approach has the bass bringing out a melodic line that is prominent in the guitar part, starting on the 5th of the chord and walking up to the b7, as shown in Ex. 2. Well, the live Graham Bond version offers another take on this idea, with Jack Bruce using the same basic rhythm as Ex. 2, but the line starts on the root of the chord and walks up to the b3 instead. It’s an unusual approach to the tune, but it’s easy to understand why Bruce would want to start his line on the root. By emphasizing the b3 in the bass line, the tune develops a decidedly “nasty” vibe, and with the provided straight eighth-note rock feel, the performance is a precursor to the “groovy” British rock that was to follow.

Example 3  is an approximation of Bruce’s line on the recording, at least during the vocal section—during the solos, his line gets somewhat buried in the mix due to the primitive nature of the session. The rhythm is written as straight eighth-notes, but the line is articulated with a “short-long, short-long” feel; try saying “dit-dah, dit-dah” to get the idea. He starts the line on the E one octave up from the open E. You might wonder why not use the low E? Well, in those days, E strings were not as consistent as they are today, the recording technology was primitive (this track is a perfect example), and amps were not all that robust, either. Videos of Jack Bruce playing with this band show him using a Fender Bass VI, a short-scale instrument with ultraskinny strings, and while tuned in the same octave as a standard 4-string, the low E, combined with these other factors, was often ineffectual.

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There are many other great examples of Jack Bruce’s approach to the blues, and in future columns, we will revisit some of his more well known performances. But for this month, dig on the rawness these English chaps brought to the blues, and how they paved the way for the blues/rock explosion of the ’60s.

Photo by Heinrich Klaffs