BOOK REVIEW : Jack Bruce Composing Himself: The Authorized Biography Author : Harry Shapiro Publisher : Jawbone Press (March 1, 2010) Language : English ISBN-10 : 1906002266 ISBN-13 : 978-1906002268
It’s not an easy task deciphering the career of the diversified musician Jack Bruce. Bruce’s zigzag musical path began at the age of 11 when he composed his first string quartet. By the time he was 30 Bruce had gone from jazz journeyman to blues-rock star back to what (more or less) can be called a jazz artist again. Adding to the puzzle is a musician who brought no shortage of Bach to hard rock while putting hits on the 60s top-10 charts with the band Cream. Complicating the weave of Bruce’s career fabric includes an atypical set of well-studied influences ranging from Stravinsky to Charles Mingus. Combine all the above with Bruce’s idiosyncratic relationship with the music industry (and visa versa) and may answer the question why it has taken until 2010 for an authoritative biography of this influential artist to appear.
Such an effort is not out of the scope of Harry Shapiro who in the past 20 years has written biographies of Bruce’s peers Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Bruces former employers Graham Bond and Alexis Corner. Shapiro by now has an intimate familiarity with the rock and roll territory these artists share. But it’s the extra effort Shapiro takes with the overlooked facets of Bruce’s career and personality that makes the book Jack Bruce; Composing Himself an informative read.
The story begins with Shapiro tracing Bruce’s paternal and maternal origins in a neighborhood that until the mid-20th century was Western Europe’s most densely populated slum. Here in the tenements of Glasgow Jack Bruce was born in 1943 to a family who for generations had survived as part of the industrial revolution’s factory working poor. Via his interviews with Bruce, Shapiro tells us how Bruce’s family continued the socialist activism of their 19th century rent-striking forbearers by joining the Communist party in the 1930s. After 2 generations on the brink of poverty it’s hard to call such affiliations reactionary. Yet the Bruce’s politics had less to do with the agenda of Soviet Stalinism than it did with the set of values Shapiro finds in a timeless popular Scottish song.
As Shapiro writes of Jack Bruce’s father: „Like many of Scotland’s politicized workers, Charley Bruce’s outlook can be best summed up by Robert Burn’s five-verse song „A Man’s A Man For A’That“, written in the Ayrshire dialect. In it Burns declared that money and social class should not be the measure of a man’s true worth; that honesty and self respect do not come from inherited wealth, fancy clothes or airs and graces.“
Paraphrasing Burn’s may seem quaint. But as Shapiro unravels Bruce’s life story via interviews with Bruce, Carla Bley, Eric Clapton, Billy Cobham, Pete Brown and others – the timeless logic of a „A Man’s A Man For A’That“ clarifies many of the composer/bassist’s otherwise unexplainable creative and career moves.
For example for those who ask — where was Bruce on July 12th 1969 when his former band mates Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker (under considerable pressure from their management) were reformed as Blind Faith and making their U.S.A. debut?
That night while thousands flocked to see the heavily promoted latest super group at New York’s Madison Square Gardens, Bruce could have of easily been there to cash in on his piece of the pie. Instead, a short NYC subway ride away, on that very same night Cream’s former bassist was happily playing with guitarist Larry Coryell and drummer Bob Moses at little place in New York’s East Village called Slug’s.
As Shapiro points out despite the near universal rock and roll deification of Clapton and Baker to 60s rock fans, for many music critics Jack Bruce’s first solo studio efforts „Songs for a Tailor“ 1969 and „Harmony Row“ exceeded anything Baker or Clapton did as solo artists in the immediate post-Cream years.
While in the years immediately following Cream, Clapton stylistically stayed on his blues-rock message (aided by a fraternity of US artists including Delaney Bramlett, Duane Allman, Bobby Whitlock and J.J. Cale) — some but not all of the unpredictable directions Bruce would go were developed in Cream.
Although Shapiro devotes an entire chapter to Cream, as well to Bruce’s hard rocking stint in West, Bruce and Laing, still the most concise description of Bruce’s role the band to date can be found in an interview with Bruce’s songwriting partner jazz-poet Pete Brown at the time of Cream’s 2005 reunion. As Brown told Rolling Stone’s David Frick: „Had I been promoting these gigs, I would have suggested they take a look at employing additional musicians to do the more ambitious pieces. In the studio, that enabled them to work on a broader canvas, especially Jack. I think that’s one of the reasons they broke up. Jack was growing as a composer — he needed that bigger canvas. But they couldn’t play that kind of music live as a trio and with the limits placed on them by their management, which wanted them to churn out the same thing all the time and keep touring.“
Contributing substantial input to the success of Cream, and the prolific Bruce and Brown songwriting team was Cream’s producer/arranger the late Felix Pappalardi. Pappalardi as an experienced Greenwich Village stage musician not only shared Clapton’s working knowledge of blues history and technique, but as a trained conductor was a serious match for Bruce’s classical prowess. If Brown’s co-songwriting Cream credits suggest he was the bands 4th member, Pappalardi in the studio made Cream a quintet not only via his tasks as arranger/producer but also the musician playing the additional viola, mellotron, keyboards, percussion and bass parts that went into the final mix.
Shapiro does not break any new ground in giving Pappalardi his long overdue credit for not only a progressive role in Cream, but also as an influence proto-metal blues-rock in general. But when Shapiro discusses Pappalardi he does so by providing a key insight into understanding Bruce’s talents when he quotes from a Pappalardi interview in Crawdaddy magazine in 1968: „The only one who’s into composition per se is Jack, as what I would call a composer, someone who would score things as he hears them. Jack’s deeply into that. I think the first example of it in some total form is found on the next album [Wheels of Fire]; he wrote this thing called „As You Said.“ To me it’s totally original. It’s scored for two acoustic guitars, two cellos, voice and just high-hat. And it’s Jack, except for the high-hat, playing both acoustic guitars, both cellos, and the vocal. So I know he’s into composition, ‚cause I know what his background is, his background is very much like mine. I mean he’s trained, in the elements and in the literature. In other words, he’s not a rock ‚n‘ roll musician; he’s just a musician, generically.“
Using the cello driven ‚As You Said‘ Pappalardi refers to as an example Shapiro delves further into Bruce’s impressionist inspiration from Debussy. As Bruce tells Shapiro „the whole composition is development, not like in classical music where you have resolution, a subject that resolves itself – a form that just expands itself. In theory, that song could go on forever. So it was an attempt to do that without being too precious about it.“
Getting smooth results while building on lessons learned from past masters like Stravinsky and Bach does not always especially guarantee timeless rock music. But as Shapiro reminds us this is where Bruce shines. Bruce has good company in this category with the better arrangements of the Beatles, Brian Wilson, and the entire production/arrangement staff of Elektra who contributed to the production of the Doors, Tim Buckley and the opus Love’s Forever Changes. These moments of popular music give us something beyond snippets of the classics, folk, or jazz copy and pasted into a rock format for purposes of superficial effect. Thanks to Shapiro’s interviews we finally get some insights into Bruce’s methods.
As Bruce explains to Shapiro „What Messiaen was trying to do with other composers of that generation and possibly earlier generations of French musicians was to try and come up with music that in its relation was very complex, with complex themes but sounds very simple. You might be using birdsong as Messiaen did – some obscure Mexican thrush. Birds hear ten times faster than humans and their music is passed from generation to generation – it isn’t the same as it was 100 years ago. But on the surface when you hear a nightingale or a thrush it sounds deceptively simple. And that’s what I was trying to do in a pop or rock format – have fairly complicated structures and ideas, but that could communicate with people.“
Extending blues-rock and pop songs with techniques synthesized from elsewhere was only one facet of Bruce’s story. After Cream while continuing to work solo with lyricist Pete Brown (in recordings that also included George Harrison, Pappalardi, Chris Spedding and Dick Heckstall-Smith) Bruce aligned himself with 2 of America’s most promising and visionary jazz artists.
Legend has it Tony Williams was the buzz in Miles Davis ear that pushed the cool jazz prince of darkness towards the jazz-fusion of Bitches Brew. Also working with Williams at that time was Larry Young. Those who have heard Young’s keyboard work with Williams, Jimi Hendrix and Davis, or even better yet Young’s solo 70s Lp’s „Unity“ and „Lawrence of Newark,“ will know why he is called the „John Coltrane of the Hammond B3“.
Williams for 6 years in the 60s was a core member of Davis‘ line-up. But as if running out of patience with Davis, months before the release of Bitches Brew in 1969, Williams formed teamed with Young and John McLaughlin in forming his own group Lifetime. Their break through jazz rock LP Emergency! singled not only the future for Davis, but also for Santana, Mahavishnu Orchestra and others who would soon also be riding the jazz-fusion wave.
Bruce would join William’s Lifetime from 1970-1971. During that period of time Lifetime did not have as dense of recording and concert schedule as Cream did from 1966-1968, but Bruce once again found himself in a band that was making as large of impact on jazz as his former band had made on rock.
For the remainder of the book we are led through the decades as Bruce continually builds on the jazz-fusion intensity of Lifetime and the blues-rock dynamism of Cream with his lyrical classically informed sound. It’s a challenging 40 years for Bruce that includes overcoming drug addiction and battling disappointments with the recording industry. But victory has always awaited Bruce in the form of album after album of convincing jazz-rock innovation and ongoing critical recognition. It’s natural that some of this popular recognition came to Bruce in the form of an induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as member of Cream in 1993. Less expected to those who know Bruce primarily as a rock star, but no surprise to those familiar with Bruce’s ongoing work, in 2009 Bruce was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Glasgow Caledonian University for his contribution to Scottish culture.
The proof though is in the listening. Even with all the detours and cul-de-sacs as Shapiro points out there is no shortage of musical gems and lessons to be to be gathered throughout Bruce’s ongoing journey. Some lesser known musical accomplishments discussed in the book are; Bruce’s ‚lost album‘ 1979’s Jet Set Jewel, Bruce’s work in the 80s and 90s with jazz composer Kip Hanrahan, and Bruce’s 1995 keyboard and voice collaboration with Bernie Worrell on the CD Moonjack. Bruce’s appearance as a vocalist on volume 28 of the Complete John Cage Collection in 2003 is also worth searching out.
Longer books have been written about more shallow musicians. Given Bruce’s roots and branches, there are enough tendrils to his story to command a book twice if not three times as long. Still here Shapiro puts together the essential pieces to the puzzle of how Bruce as one of the most prolific musicians to come out of the 60s who today continue climbing a musical path far beyond the blues-rock image of Cream.