Bassist Jack Bruce (1943-2014): The famous fifteen minutes of madness

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Written By Maya Cantina
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One of the best bassists between jazz and rock: a collection of radio and TV recordings of the British Jack Bruce reveals his messy genius.

young Jack Bruce sings with his eyes closed during a concert

Also had a knack for hard-rock guitarists that were hard to stomach: electric bassist Jack Bruce Photo: Wolhelm Mierendorf/imago

Punk rock, yacht rock, kraut rock, West Coast singer/songwriter, heavy metal, disco – the 1970s certainly made a major contribution to pop history. Today, even hardcore retro disciples are only at odds with the two styles that actually offered the greatest promise of artistic utopia at the turn of the decade: jazz rock (also known as fusion) and progressive rock (prog rock or simply prog ).

Prog was meant to bring rock music to the same level as European electronic music, while jazz was meant to bring rock the virtuoso spirituality of John Coltrane And the earthy sexiness of Jimi Hendrix wanted to be in harmony with each other. Both attempts failed.

At the beginning of the decade there were some promising results. And Jack Bruce played a major role in several of them. Born in Scotland, he became a world-famous pop star as bassist, singer and main song supplier for the power trio Cream (1966–1968), alongside guitarist Eric Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker.

From 1969 onwards he released a handful of brilliant, prog-related solo albums on which – freed from the shackles of the power trio format – he developed his own compositional language for pop songs, characterized not least by his admiration for Anton Webern, representative of the Viennese School. Shortly after the release of his debut album “Song For A Tailor”, Bruce initially joined the Tony Williams Lifetime

The Miles Davis Students

The band was founded in 1969 as a trio Miles Davis students founded: Drummer Tony Williams was cast in 1963 as a 17-year-old by Miles Davis and was part of his legendary quintet of the 1960s, possibly the best acoustic jazz formation of all time. British guitarist John McLaughlin only played with Miles for a good year, but impressed the maestro so much that he named a piece on the legendary double album ‘Bitches Brew’ after him.

Larry Young, who later called himself Khalid Yasin, was only briefly a guest with Miles Davis as one of several keyboard players. He had previously recorded increasingly wonderful albums as a Hammond organist for the Blue Note label, which interpreted the instrument in a very different, textural way than the funky organists popular at the time, such as Jimmy Smith or Jack McDuff.

As a trio, Tony Williams Lifetime released the incomparable double album ‘Emergency!’ immediately after its formation in 1969. released, which was and should remain perhaps the best, most vital, most diverse and most imaginative album in the young genre of jazz rock. although or maybe because it was so raw and harsh sounding and was probably recorded way too early. Jack Bruce was also impressed and told McLaughlin, his old friend from London’s R&B days in the early 1960s.

Because band leader Tony Williams was a Cream fan, Bruce was soon invited to become a band member after this intro. And as a quartet, the Tony Williams Lifetime recorded the album “(Turn It Over)”, which was a further enriched variant of the first statement: Bruce’s sovereignty on the electric bass, but above all his jazz-trained improvisation, his unique musical versatility, his will and ability to listen; All this added the magic ingredient to Tony Williams’ multi-dimensional organ textures, wild guitar runs and majestically dominant yet melodically sensitive drumming.

What’s exciting: no Marshall amps

Then in October 1970 the four traveled to Bremen to record a session for the legendary Radio-Bremen-TV music show “Beat Club”. There must have been significant problems with the recording. “Beat Club” host Uschi Nerke announced at the beginning of the show, for which Lifetime’s contribution was actually planned, that it was with a heavy heart that they had to give up the group because they had proven to be “too arrogant.”

Subsequently, rumors surfaced that the musicians had requested Marshall amplifiers but were only given Orange amplifiers, causing them to complete the recording early.

Tony Willam’s Lifetime disbanded a short time later, reportedly due to incompetent management, and was re-formed with other musicians by the bandleader a short time later.

“Unique find”, “Important find!”, “Post of the decade!” – the online fan community went crazy when clips from the Lifetime set were unexpectedly posted online to the “Beat Club” YouTube channel last September. For music fans who don’t want to make do with YouTube, the good news is that the surviving parts of the session have now been released on Blu-ray Disc, as part of the Jack Bruce box set “Smiles & Grins – Broadcast Sessions 1970 –2001.”

Impossible interviews

By the way, it may have been the band’s arrogance that put an end to the recordings. In his blog The Blue Moment, British jazz critic Richard Williams recalls trying to conduct an interview with Tony Williams at the time. Williams read the newspaper during the interview and rarely answered more than a word or two to his questions.

Richard Williams took this sportingly and in retrospect sees the cause mainly in his training with Miles Davis: “Many of the younger musicians who worked with Miles in the 1960s adopted his refusal to be friendly, both to the public and to journalists .”

He sees his appreciation for the band confirmed by the publication of the Beat Club Session in Bremen: “For me it was the band of that time. Much more than Weather Report, Return To Forever, Headhunters or the Mahavishnu Orchestra, they fulfilled the promise of (Miles Davis’ albums) ‘In A Silent Way’ and ‘Bitches Brew’. Hendrix was at her level at his best. And they stayed together for less than a year. It hurts to imagine what they could have achieved.”

Otherwise, the box is a document of a slow but unstoppable artistic decline. The 1971 “Radio One” session, which constitutes the first CD in the box set, features post-Lifetime Bruce at the height of his solo phase, having just produced his magnum opus with the album “Harmony Row.” From there it went downhill. Above all, after his fruitful collaborations with exceptional guitarists John McLaughlin, Chris Spedding and sometimes even Eric Clapton, Bruce demonstrated a talent for hard rock guitarists that was difficult to stomach.

Hard to tolerate Progmetal shenanigans

The prog metal attempts with Clem Clempson in the late 1970s are just as difficult to stomach as the fusion metal attempts with Vernon Reid from the 1990s. He also seemed to run out of ammunition as a songwriter, and always ends up returning to the same old songs from Cream and his early solo days.

The younger the recordings in this box, the sadder the matter becomes. You are compensated a bit by the live set of a short-lived line-up of his Jack Bruce Band with the American jazz artist Carla Bley on the keys and guitarist Mick Taylor, who was underexposed in the Rolling Stones, as well as two trio sets with saxophonist John Surman and drumming legend Jon Hiseman – very competent British jazz of the freer variety.

All in all a heroic epic and a tragedy in one, or a mixed bag, as they say in Britain. But the fifteen-minute lifespan alone is worth the purchase.

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