I felt an immense sense of personal loss today. I received the news that Jack Bruce passed away. It shows the monumental power of music that I could experience such feelings of sadness over the loss of someone I never met personally. From decades of listening to his music and attempting to play it (not nearly as well as he did) I get a sense of having spent a lot of time with the man.
Like many fans, the music of Cream introduced me to Jack Bruce. When I started playing bass guitar, my fingers would spend more time scratching my head than plucking the strings. Even “easy” songs such as “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room” turned out to be deceptively complicated. The more I studied his playing the more he opened my mind and ears to a whole new world of musical experiences.
It’s difficult to find enough words to convey Jack Bruce’s talent. He learned how to play the cello as a child. Before reaching adolescence he wrote a string quartet. As his love of music expanded, he took an interest in the string bass and the music of Jazz legend Charles Mingus. While difficult to emulate Mingus’ assault on the instrument, Bruce came close. When I listened to live Cream recordings, I wondered if he really needed an amplifier with the forceful way he’d pound on his bass strings. When he switched to bass guitar Motown bassist James Jamerson became his primary influence. Bach, Mingus and Jamerson: no bass player could select better sources of inspiration. This fusion of Classical, Jazz and Rhythm and Blues gave Bruce’s music its original sound.
While his years with Cream overshadowed his later work, Bruce consistently released quality material. Listeners could experience the full spectrum of Bruce’s abilities on his 1989 best of entitled Willpower. It contained heavier rocking tracks such as “Keep it Down” along with somber pieces like “Theme for an Imaginary Western”. He also treated fans to more Jazz influence cuts such as “Jet Set Jewel” and “The Best is Still to Come.” I really enjoyed “Can You Follow”. The sole instrumentation was Bruce singing and playing the piano.
While many people think of Bruce as the bass player for Cream, he also possessed tremendous skill as a vocalist. He could sing bluesy tracks like “Spoonful” and “Third Degree” (from the Bruce, West, Laing era), pop tunes such as “I’m So Glad” and sad ballads equally well. “Ships in the Night” (from his solo career) being the epitome of the latter, although “We’re Going Wrong” deserves honorable mention. I’d have to include the outstanding Jazz ballad “The Wrong Side of Town” (from the Bruce, Baker, Moore line-up) in that category, also.
Many have called Jack Bruce a “legendary bassist”. I don’t agree. That’s too glib a way to describe Bruce’s abilities. Based on the superlative quality of his singing, songwriting and proficiency with multiple instruments, I would call him a musician of the highest order who also played bass guitar extremely well.
May he Rest in Peace. I extend my deepest condolences to Mr. Bruce’s friends and family.