The outpouring of tributes to Jack Bruce following his sad death at the weekend indicated the esteem in which this wonderful musician was held throughout the music world. The last time I saw Jack Bruce was at one of the Cream reunion shows at London’s Royal Albert Hall on May 5, 2005, and a review of this can be found elsewhere on Just Backdated, under Eric Clapton. I remarked there that Jack looked a bit frail but also wrote, “He can still handle a bass like a maestro, jiggling it up and down and playing fat chords or plucking upwards, always hard and inspired.”
I did a long interview with Jack for Melody Maker in July of 1973, one of the last interviews I did in London before heading over to the US take on the job of MM’s American Editor that August. Jack was engaging and talkative, an affable, friendly man unaffected by his success, and the interview covered many aspects of his career. It’s quite long so I’ll divide it up into two parts.
Jack Bruce has turned full circle. The best bass guitarist Britain has produced, whose career has merged jazz and rock to the extent where he is now accepted as a top musician in both fields, is back where he started. He’s playing rock and roll in a trio and loving every minute of it.
It must be extraordinarily satisfying for Jack to look back on the various phases of his career. There were the times before Cream when his reputation was built in the Graham Bond Organisation and Manfred Mann. There were the heights of Cream, a group who began in a small way but ended up a legend on both sides of the Atlantic. Then there was Lifetime, the group that featured guitarist John McLaughlin and may well have paved the way for the Mahavinshu Orchestra. There was the short lived Jack Bruce Group who gave a live airing to Jack’s solo material, and now there’s West Bruce & Laing, a return to the more basic, driving music that Jack still loves to play.
Few musicians can claim such a distinctive track record – and Jack himself feels it’s by no means over yet. When he says the best has probably yet to come, I’m inclined to be sceptical. But unlike many illustrious superstars, Bruce is not a man to rest on his laurels. He’ll just go on and on striving to find something better.
With West, Bruce & Laing temporarily off the road, Jack is back in Britain commuting between his island off the coast of Scotland and his Essex home. And last week he was in London talking about his various activities over the past year.
We opened our conversation with the formation of W, B & L – an event that took place around 18 months ago now, but one which still represents a fascinating merger of rock talent. “I had my own band at the time with Chris Spedding and John Marshall but when Felix Pappalardi decided that he didn’t want to tour any more with Mountain. Leslie West came over to England and asked me to have a blow with him and Corky Laing. I did and it sounded good,” said Jack.
“I really fancied being in a heavy rock type band again, and when they asked me to join them I said ‘yes.’ The first thing we did was some recording for our own pleasure, and then there was a tour of America which was very successful. Then we made the first album but by this time we were having management problems catching up with us and we had a hard time with this until we could get back on the road again. When all that was resolved there was another American tour, the European tour and then the second album.”
What motivated Jack to move back to rock after his fllirtations with more sophisticated music? “Well, it was just because it’s such an enjoyable feeling being on a stage singing into a mike with thousands of watts of power behind you and I missed this. Maybe it’s the exhibitionist in me, but it always turns me on doing rock music on stage.
“Lifetime was as enjoyable as this group, but unfortunately that had folded. If that had carried on I’d have stayed there because that band had everything. There was the heavyweight bit in it as well a the more subtle music and the group was obviously too much ahead of its time. John McLaughlin is having much success now, which is really nice to see, but maybe if Lifetime had happened at the time the Mahavishnu Orchestra started we might have been able to hold it together.
“I don’t really change my playing no matter what group I am with. I just play me, and the group around me changes. Even on the Escalator Over The Hill album with Carla Bley, the opera which has been voted the best jazz album in the MM, I didn’t consciously change my style of playing. You can have different styles in the same band, and it gells because all musicians seem to have a common background in music from the fifties. Rock musicians, so long as they’re pretty hip timewise, can play with just about everybody.”
With W, B & L not working, Jack is involved in all sorts of other projects. He’s shortly to make an album with the Jazz Composers Orchestra of a piece written specially for him by Carla Bley’s husband, Mike Mantler, titled ‘How It Is’. Words to the piece are by Samuel Beckett, who is renowned for withholding permission for his words to be used. On this occasion he has given the go-ahead. Another solo album of songs written by Jack and Pete Brown is also in the pipeline.
How did Jack react to the inevitable comparisons between his current band and Cream? “I think that was before people heard the band. They were just saying that because it was a guitar, bass and drums line-up, and there are a lot of three piece groups around. Take The Who, who have the same instrumentation: they are nothing like Cream was, or what West, Bruce & Laing is now.
“With any band it’s the combination of the personalities involved that makes the group and not the instruments. That’s why West, Bruce & Laing don’t sound like the Cream or Mountain. I don’t really see the need for comparisons as we’re just another band with Leslie, Corky and myself. That’s all that is needed to be said.”
One thing about W, B & L which pleases Jack is that in America they attract a large quota of black audiences. “This is a tremendous compliment and it probably comes about because a lot or the black music in the States has become very commercialised and soft and it doesn’t satisfy the kids. In the South and Detroit and Chicago there have been a lot of black kids was in the audience. They’re looking for more guts in the music which labels like Tamla Motown is giving them now.”