The musical life of bassist Jack Bruce existed between the worlds of jazz and rock
The legendary Cream and Lifetime bassist passed away on October 25, 2014.
After British psych-rock juggernaut Cream broke up at the end of 1968, its members wasted little time throwing themselves into new situations. In ’69, guitarist Eric Clapton strummed for Plastic Ono Band and teamed with Trafficker Steve Winwood to form Blind Faith. Drummer Ginger Baker leapt with Blind Faith, too, but soon split for Nigeria to percuss with Fela. Most adventurous, though, was bassist Jack Bruce’s turn as low-end theorist for drummer Tony Williams’s Lifetime, the rough and rugged electric jazz group that emerged concurrent to Miles’s In a Silent Way crew. Predating fusion powerhouses like Weather Report, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and the Headhunters, Lifetime helped open the door to the fierce, futuristic world of plugged-in jazz in the ’70s. And Bruce had his hand on the knob.
Bruce first heard Williams on reedist Eric Dolphy’s 1964 masterpiece Out to Lunch!, an album the bassist considers to have “changed a lot of things.” Though only eighteen years old when he recorded on Out to Lunch!, Williams already had a crisp, fiery style in place.
“He turned it all around,” says Bruce on Williams’s drumming. “He wouldn’t necessarily play the bass drum part on the bass drum. He might do the snare drum part on the bass drum. He didn’t do the conventional thing. Although he’s still part of the tradition.”
In January 1970, Bruce finally came face-to-face with the man behind the kit. At the Fillmore East with Jack Bruce and Friends—a quartet that featured guitarist Larry Coryell, organist Mike Mandel, and Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell—Bruce encountered not only a number of his American musician friends, but Williams, who brought with him an offer Bruce couldn’t refuse.
“I was playing the Fillmore East with my own band—my first band of my own,” remembers Bruce. “And Tony came down with John McLaughlin. Jimi Hendrix was there. Quite a night. Carla Bley [was there]. And I got introduced to Tony by John. And Tony said, ‘Do you wanna join my band?’ So I said, ‘Sure! Why not?’ ”
Bruce joined the original Lifetime lineup—organist Larry Young, guitarist John McLaughlin, and Williams on drums and vocals—in April 1970, about a month after his American tour with Jack Bruce and Friends terminated at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. The transition was easy; Bruce had followed Williams’s career, and McLaughlin and Bruce had been collaborating since 1963, when both men were in the employ of organist Graham Bond.
“John had transformed his playing,” recalls Bruce about reuniting with McLaughlin in Lifetime. “He changed very, very, very much. Drastically. When I first played with John in the early ’60s, he was more or less playing Wes Montgomery type of things. A funky jazz sort of thing. And then [in the late ’60s] he made a record called Extrapolation, which was going in the direction he then went in. And he also played on my solo record Things We Like. Which is a really good record. And you can hear the beginnings of what became his style there too. So by the time Lifetime came along, he had forged this new way of playing. Very technical. But very exciting as well.”
Lifetime would be Bruce’s first meeting with Young though. The organist of the moment, Young had worked with everyone from Miles to Jimi—not to mention Grant Green and Jimmy Forrest—by the time Bruce made Lifetime a quartet.
“To me, Larry was a complete genius,” gushes Bruce. “Of anybody I’ve ever played with—and I’ve played with a lot of great people—I think he was the most spontaneous, natural, genius of a musician I ever played with. He didn’t read music. Completely fabulous. I remember doing a concert on the European [Lifetime] tour, we played in my hometown of Glasgow, and Larry played an organ solo that literally brought the audience to tears. I mean, I’ve never experienced anything like that.”
The Bruced-up version of Lifetime debuted in April 1970 at East Village jazz hang Slug’s Saloon, a regular laboratory for major players like Albert Ayler and Sun Ra; Bruce was familiar with the venue, as an alternate version of Jack Bruce and Friends—one featuring Bob Moses on drums and Gato Barbieri on sax—had worked there in the summer of ’69. The Lifetime quartet hit Detroit and Cincinnati in spring 1970 and made a particularly ill-fated festival appearance in July.
“We did the Newport Jazz Festival, which was not tremendously well-received,” Bruce recalls, laughing. “We followed Buddy Rich and I think almost the entire audience left as we played the first chord of ‘Dragon Song.’ And it also did rain a little bit. Buddy Rich’s crowd weren’t into what we were trying to do.”
Things were markedly better at Ungano’s, the Upper West Side club where Lifetime took up residence a few weeks after Newport. “We had a tremendous run at Ungano’s, which is a kind of mythical club,” says Bruce. “Miles came down. Janis Joplin was a friend of mine; she came down. It was all quite a crazy time. We played Ungano’s for about ten days and gradually built up the audience there until the place was rockin’.”
In between Newport and the Ungano’s residency, Lifetime snuck in a session at Olmsted Sound Studios in New York. The resulting LP, 1970’s Turn It Over, is the only Lifetime record to feature Bruce. The landscape of Turn It Over is fuzzy and distorted, with shrieking organs and pummeling drums circling McLaughlin’s bluesy blowouts and Bruce’s deep impacts.
“People weren’t really ready for that kind of technical playing at that level,” says Bruce of Turn It Over. “And that volume, I must say, we suffered from that. I mean, there’s some good things on the record. But we were only scratching at the surface.”
Aside from the Ungano’s run, however, little was happening for the band, and Bruce took it upon himself to get the ball rolling. The bass boss put together a two-month tour of Europe that saw Lifetime spreading their gospel to Scotland, Switzerland, Germany, and England.
“Tony’s management was not the finest,” explains Bruce. “Didn’t have it together. I used to spend a lot of time hanging around in New York waiting for the gig to happen. And eventually, I got fed up with that. So I organized a tour of Europe, because otherwise nothing was happening. The European tour was really, really great. We played all over Europe and turned a lot of people on to some different sounds.”
Despite all they had accomplished since April, when the European tour came to a close in December, so did that incarnation of Lifetime. McLaughlin, famously instructed by Miles to start his own band, left to start the Mahavishnu Orchestra; he was replaced by Ted Dunbar. After exiting, Bruce resurrected Jack Bruce and Friends, and soon started West, Bruce & Laing; Williams brought in four-stringers like Ron Carter and Juini Booth.
“There was a lot of political things going on,” explains Bruce on the end of Lifetime’s 1970 lineup. “A lot of people weren’t very happy. I think John really wanted to do his own thing. It was kind of like a repetition of the Cream breakup,” he laughs. “Only kind of accelerated, you know? After that European tour, which actually cost me a lot of money, I was not really that happy to kind of wait around for things to happen. It just kind of ground to a halt. We were just ahead of our time. You could argue a lot of things, but we had some good gigs. And a few good tracks we laid down. That’s the way I look at it. The gigs were really amazing. Anybody who was fortunate enough to see that band still talks about it.”
Another still-talked-about topic is the early days of fusion. Bruce dismisses the common notion that fusion suddenly sprung up around Miles and his men in the late ’60s; when Bruce started working with Williams in 1970, mixing jazz and rock was hardly a novel approach for the bassist.
“[Fusion] was just something that I had been doing naturally for years in Britain,” explains Bruce. “It wasn’t something new to me. It was fun. It was fun to be able to use the kind of technique that we had but play rock. It was obviously what Cream was doing as well. That was a kind of fusion band. It didn’t suddenly happen; it’s something that had been around for a long time.
“I don’t think bebop sort of happened on a Friday night at Minton’s,” continues Bruce. “I think it was something that kinda happened, you know? The same thing applied to fusion. I’m not suggesting that jazz-rock was as important as bebop, but it certainly happened for a while.”
And it’s still happening. In 2008, Bruce came together with drummer Cindy Blackman Santana, keyboardist John Medeski, and guitarist Vernon Reid to form Spectrum Road, a group dedicated to the music and spirit of Lifetime. In June 2012, Spectrum Road—named after the Lifetime song “Via the Spectrum Road”—released their self-titled debut album, which features a trio of songs from Turn It Over.
“[Spectrum Road] started on my tour bus,” explains Bruce. “I was touring Europe with Vernon. I had a great band called the Cuicoland Express. Vernon was the guitar player. I always liked to play with Vernon whenever I could. And he just wanted to talk about what it was like playing with Tony. And the idea just sort of came about. He said, ‘Maybe we should do a kind of tribute gig.’ We didn’t think about doing a band or a tour. Just a gig. We were offered to play in Japan, and so we went along with that. And it just grew from there.”
Bruce is particularly enamored with Reid’s playing. A veteran of groups like Defunkt and his own Living Colour, Reid can shred with malice one moment and riff with soulful simplicity the next.
“I think he’s so good that people don’t hear how good he is,” says Bruce. “He’s so out there that very few people have got the ears to actually follow what he’s doing. Someday, when we can all hear properly, we’ll understand what he was doing. [It’s like] if you slow down a blackbird or song thrush, then we can understand it.”
And perhaps audiences will better understand what Lifetime was doing through Spectrum Road. In fact, Bruce feels it’s only appropriate to keep the sounds of Lifetime going, especially in light of how music far older than Lifetime’s is still very much a part of our lives.
“Great music is timeless,” says Bruce. “Nobody’s complaining about playing Bach or something.”
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