Jack Bruce finally succumbed to his liver woes yesterday at the age of 71. I’ll always be a fan of his most famous work with Cream, and could certainly have done a Top 10 list of just those tunes. But as a person interested in jazz, rock and the sometimes nebulous crosshairs between them, I find Jack Bruce to be a particularly important (dare I say unique?) figure, with credibility in both worlds and a long track record of exploring the intersections. This list was compiled with a particular slant towards showing his diversity in that regard.
1 ) “White Room” by Cream (from Wheels of Fire)
This is not the first Cream song I ever heard or enjoyed, but it’s the one that made the light bulb go on for me around Jack’s genius as a player, singer and songwriter. The song is so iconic that I’ll admit to sometimes taking it for granted, but I can’t imagine a musical world without it!
2 ) “HCKHH Blues” (from Things We Like)
Though not initially released, this 1968 session was Bruce’s first as a bandleader, an instrumental jazz album with a quartet including saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith, guitarist John McLaughlin, and drummer Jon Hiseman. This track (indeed, along with the whole album) is a great example of the high-energy, edgy jazz that some visionaries in the UK were producing at that time.
3 ) “Right On” by Tony Williams Lifetime (from Turn It Over)
I love Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius, but as far as jazz-rock electric bass-centered jams go, can you really get any nastier than this? Far from being the rock-star mascot alongside Tony, organist Larry Young and important mutual associate John McLauglin, Bruce is a wonderful contributor to this criminally underappreciated early jazz-rock fusion album.
4 ) “Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out of Tune” (from Songs for a Tailor)
Lest one think that Bruce’s output of great rock ended with the breakup of Cream, this delightful 1969 track features great horns and some gnarly George Harrison rhythm guitar in service of a super-catchy song with characteristically obtuse Pete Brown lyrics.
5 ) “The First Time I Met the Blues” by Graham Bond Organisation (from Live at Klook’s Kleek)
This live 1964 recording from London features Bond’s quartet with saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith, drummer and soon-to-be Cream co-founder Ginger Baker along with Bruce, heard here on vocals and harmonica as well as bass. Whatever that hard-to-define sweet spot was in which blues and hard-rock sensibilities were coming together in the UK at that time, this is a wonderful document of the gestation of that sound.
6 ) “Apostrophe” by Frank Zappa (from Apostrophe)
This instrumental jam with Frank Zappa is intense, busy and kind of all over the place . . . in a good way, if you ask me. As Frank himself observed, this isn’t typical bass playing, with Bruce taking the spotlight at times with his own dramatic playing.
7 ) “There Comes a Time” by Spectrum Road (from Spectrum Road)
This Tony Williams Lifetime “tribute band” featured former band member Bruce alongside John Medeski, Vernon Reid and Cindy Blackman-Santana. In addition to his great playing over this rhythmically tricky tune, Bruce capably handles the deceptively challenging task of singing Tony’s vocal part from the original.
8 ) “Born Under a Bad Sign” by Cream (from Royal Albert Hall London May 2-3-5-6, 2005)
It may seem heretical to only include two Cream songs AND have one of them be a recent live recording. Still, I wanted to give some props to Jack’s endurance post-liver-transplant and his ability to come back and deliver his snaky bass lines and his characteristic blues-meets-sneer vocals with such authority, all of which he does in spades here.
9 ) “Directions Home (for Tony Williams & Larry Young)” (from Shadows in the Air)
This 2001 album features guests ranging from Bernie Worrell and Vernon Reid to Gary Moore and Eric Clapton. This track, not an all-star affair per se, is my favorite, building a rhythmically infectious groove off Robby Ameen’s drums, percussive handclapping and a gorgeous chordal vamp over which Jack sings one of the most lyrical melodies of his later years.
10 ) “Doxy” by Graham Bond (from Solid Bond)
This 1963 session, with the same band as on the previous Bond entry above, plus John McLaughlin on guitar, shows an early Bruce playing acoustic bass in a thoroughly straight-ahead jazz context. It isn’t necessarily the best Bruce OR the best version of “Doxy,” but it’s fun to hear these guys just swinging, straight-ahead.