Cream of the crop

Jack Bruce follows his own path

Jack Bruce--singer, songwriter, composer, bassist, and elder statesman of rock--says people wrongly assume that British rockers of the '60s all know each other, like some elite club of ex-prime ministers. It's an impression that Bruce's last American appearance--as part of Ringo Starr's recent All-Starr (and almost all-Brit; saxman Mark Rivera is "the token Yank," as Bruce puts it) Revue--did little to dispel.

Ringo's once-mocked Revue has redeemed itself lately. In fact, the tightly rehearsed lineup that smoked Billy Bob's on May 23 was the best of the four All-Starr tours, mostly because of the four revolving frontmen: Ringo, Jack Bruce, Procul Harum's Gary Brooker, and Peter Frampton. Although our MTV culture allows them scant opportunity to play rock concerts--an arena they pioneered--the quartet performed with tremendous grace and prowess. Hearing the old hits--the Lennon-McCartney songs (Ringo took the high road, announcing he would spare the audience "Octopus's Garden"), Procul Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale," and "All Right Now"--you realize that the music of these four frontmen is as much a part of America as mom and apple pie, and more sacred here than in Britain.

Bruce did three songs associated with Cream, the first bona fide supergroup and the band that he will forever be associated with: "Sunshine of Your Love," "White Room," and Bruce's emotional showstopper, "I Feel Free," powered by Ringo, drumming in unison with Simon Kirke of Free and Bad Company.

"He's quite a drummer," Bruce says of Ringo. (Ginger Baker, Bruce's bandmate in Cream--he's now a member of the Denver Volunteer Fire Department and sat in with the Revue there--once declared the deceptively brilliant Ringo his favorite drummer.) "I don't think he does a lot of playing in between these little tours; he's not one for a lot of woodshedding these days. But he's certainly in shape now, having a great time."

Bruce's ever-bold bass--he was the first to make the bass a lead instrument in rock--had crystal clarity, unlike Frampton, whose Les Paul was poorly equalized. He alternated between a fretless Warwick (which he endorses) and a 1955 Gibson EB-O, which he used for earlier tunes.

Sporting a full head of hair, Bruce is still the most forceful and unique blues-rock shouter ever to come out of Britain, Joe Cocker and Rod Stewart included. A five-minute bass solo kept even Billy Bob's middle-of-the-road audience riveted: "One of the things I play is 'Burning of the Midnight Lamp,'" Bruce says, "which would get a big cheer of recognition at my own concerts."

Still, there's no Brit-rock club. "I was never one for hanging out," says Bruce, who met Frampton and Brooker "maybe once in all those years." Unlike his bandmate in Cream, Eric Clapton, Bruce didn't attend any Beatles sessions. "I first ran into Ringo at Abbey Road when I was doing a session for Paul McCartney's brother, Mike McGear, who had a band called Scaffold, around '66."

Bruce's storied career is diverse. He's recently moved between opera; film scoring; concerts in Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and Germany with Chaka Khan; a piano album, Monkjack, that contains duets with former Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell; a children's musical titled Little Stars; and performances of commissioned works in Vienna with the Niederssterreichischen Tonkunstler Symphony Orchestra. He lists nearly 100 albums in his discography. Like Ginger Baker, he transcends categories and follows a more dignified path, rather than wallowing in the stagnant cesspool of pop music.

Back in the '60s--when Cream sold 35 million albums--pop music was serious art, the glory of the times, yet Bruce has no qualms about the greatest-hits, vaudeville nature of Ringo's All-Starr tours. "What's wrong with vaudeville?" he asks. "I would love to have seen a vaudeville show. Even I'm a bit young for that. Obviously we're doing classic songs; it wouldn't be fair to the audience to do obscure ones. If I've got three songs to play, they have to be ones that people know. I can't do one of the classical piano pieces from my last record."

The voice and chops are certainly stronger than they were in West, Bruce & Laing, the group that Bruce formed in the early '70s. He'd recently left the Tony Williams Lifetime, which featured John McLaughlin; Bruce describes that period as the "musical time of my life." Leslie West and Corky Laing had previously been in Mountain with Felix Pappalardi, who brilliantly produced Cream. Although WB&L seemed to be mired in delusions of psychedelic grandeur and excess (they arrived at their Carnegie Hall debut in separate limousines), Bruce differs. "West, Bruce & Laing didn't get the credit it should have. It was very much a trend-setting band," he says, even though he can't recall a single favorite number from the band's three albums.

On the demise of Pappalardi, who led Mountain on bass, he will not speak. In 1983, Pappalardi was shot by his own wife, Gail Collins, lyricist of many a Cream and Mountain Song, as well as illustrator of the latter's albums. From his unique vantage point, Bruce offers no insight, abruptly dismissing the bizarre and murky tragedy with only "I miss him very much."

Of Mountain's legendary 1970 recording of Bruce's composition (co-written with his '60s songwriting collaborator, poet Pete Brown) "Theme For An Imaginary Western," Bruce says "I never liked that version. It wasn't good: It was very heavy, inaccurate to the music. They made it plodding, less musical. In fact, they were a plodding band. I still think Leslie has the finest sound in rock 'n' roll, and I was obviously a fan of Felix," says Bruce, who once pronounced West the greatest guitarist he ever played with. "But I never thought the band swung, and for me, a band's gotta swing to get me, gotta have that movement that excites me."

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