April 29, 2024

Overall, with an informative and interesting booklet also included, this is a release full of great performances … as a celebration of what Jack Bruce did after Cream under his own name, and how he always shone in front of a live audience, this is a set which does its job and then some.

Jack Bruce’s name will, of course, forever be cemented in the annals of rock history for his time in Cream alone: their pioneering improvisational power-trio format and his own trailblazing bass style making sure of that. It is incredible to realise that, for all of Cream’s influence, and the length of the shadow their reputation still casts, they were together as a working band for only a little over two years, between 1966-1968, but in a similar way to similarly short-lived giants such as Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Doors, theirs is a star which, though it shone brightly, refuses to fade away in the collective memory of listeners the world over. However, like Ginger Baker perhaps, but in stark contrast to the globe-straddling, Albert Hall-residence-ing profile of Eric Clapton over the subsequent decades, Jack Bruce never again elevated his profile to those dizzy heights. Always a musician’s musician, and in demand for ‘supergroups’ such as West, Bruce And Laing, Baker Bruce Moore or Bruce Lordan Trower (if there was a band ready to sound like a firm of solicitors, Jack was often in it), he nonetheless dipped below the mainstream radar for much of his career; albums such as Songs For A Tailor, Harmony Row or How’s Tricks were all critically lauded while passing by the Clapton-obsessed hordes eager to hear another album on which Eric would steadfastly refuse to play a guitar solo. This is a shame, and while those albums are all supremely well-crafted, Jack’s natural habitat was always on stage, stretching out when required and feeding off the audience energy. As such, this set of radio and TV appearances is perfectly placed to hit that sweet spot, and for much of the four CDs and two DVDs contained here, it does just that. It also delves into areas with far less mass-appeal, such as the frequent diversions into Jack’s love of jazz, which may split the crowd in many ways – but let’s take a look at what we have.

The first four discs of the set are the audio-only portion, so we will take them first. The opening disc is entirely taken up by a 1971 Radio One In Concert broadcast by ‘Jack Bruce And Friends’, an outfit including Chris Spedding on guitar and Graham Bond on keyboards, and it is an auspicious start. The rock side of Jack’s nature is ramped up in tracks like the barnstorming opener You Burned The Tables On Me and the frantic The Clearout, while the beautifully constructed Folk Song displays a softer and subtler touch, all of these stemming from his writing partnership with Pete Brown (with whom he wrote even in the Cream Days). There is little in the way of nostalgia and ‘old favourites’ throughout this set, but the one nod back to Cream on this opening disc provides the highlight to these ears – a version of the Disraeli Gears deep cut We’re Going Wrong which wrings so much emotion out of the piece that it outstrips the original by some way. Towards the end of the set, things take a turn into jazz-rock territory as saxophonist Art Themen enters the picture, and while the oddly-named (but oft-played) Powerhouse Sod displays some thrilling jazz-rock improvisation and soloing, its 18-minute duration may test some listeners. It’s a good way of showing off all sides of Jack’s repertoire, however, and it’s an excellent set. The original between-song announcements from presenter Alan Black are consistently interesting, and very welcome to have included.

The second disc has a radio session recorded for Sounds Of The 70s that same year, and unsurprisingly does repeat several tracks – in fact, four of its five. Shorn of the audience response, this material is a little drier and more clinical in nature, though the addition of the sublime Theme For An Imaginary Western is very welcome. The second half of the disc goes in another direction entirely, being a session recorded for the Radio Three Jazz In Britain show, with Jon Hiseman and John Surman making up a jazz trio format. It’s quite startling for anyone raised on Jack’s Cream work to get this insight into just how serious he was about his jazz playing, and there is some good material for most ears among these six tracks, with Powerhouse Sod fascinating as it comes shorn of all its jazz-rock bluster and performed through a pure jazz lens, with the lengthy fat trimmed off it. There are parts, however, which may well test the patience of the non-jazz aficionado, including the closing Walkabout, which meanders on for a wearying 27 minutes, which really is excessive (and they said prog rock was indulgent!). Elsewhere, there is little optimism for a piece entitled Oom Bham She Bam Bom, and this proves to be the case as its modern jazz improvisation sounds to the uneducated ear like seven minutes of tuning up. Overall, this is the weakest of the four discs, owing to the duplication of the band material and the surfeit of ‘serious’ jazz.

Hold on though, because with Disc Three we hit real paydirt again, with what is probably the finest performance in the whole set, a 1975 Old Grey Whistle Test special, given over entirely to The Jack Bruce Band in concert. This is an exciting band line-up, with appearances from Carla Bley (most familiar to prog rock fans for her almost total writing and direction of Nick Mason’s album Fictitious Sports), and also Ronnie Leahy on keyboards, after the split of Stone The Crows, the fine blues-rock band with whom he did such sterling work. Most enticingly of all, guitar duties are provided by Mick Taylor, fresh from his departure from the Rolling Stones the previous year, playing in a band line-up which never released a studio album. Taylor does not disappoint, spreading some absolute molten gold guitar work throughout – not necessarily shredding and grandstanding, but performing perfectly in the service of the song in question. Highlights abound here, but special mention has to go to Morning Story, Pieces Of Mind, a splendid Smiles And Grins and the jazz-rock masterclass of Spirit. Such a shame the band never recorded an album, but at least we have this recording. For those anxious for more jazz, there is a two-song 1978 Jazz In Britain session, with Hiseman and Surman again, performing the curiously time-obsessed tracks Fifteen Minutes Past Three and Ten Past Four. Again, you have to be a jazz fan to get the most out of these, but there is certainly some great playing, and the disc remains a very strong one.

Disc Four gives us The Jack Bruce Band again, from two years later in 1977, for another Radio One In Concert show, taking up most of the disc, This, however is a very different band from that of two years earlier, featuring a completely new line-up (notably with the talents of Simon Phillips on drums), and a decidedly funkier, jazzier edge. The loss of Taylor is acutely felt, but it is still a good performance, drawing heavily on the just-released How’s Tricks album, and largely resting on the listener’s appreciation of that record, as the style is generally pretty consistent with it. The version of Spirit here deserves mention in particular, as it is exceptional. The disc is rounded out by a third track from that 1978 Jazz In Britain show, with the time fascination remaining as this time we are given Twenty Past Four. It rounds out the audio discs well, but now we get to the DVD content, which is odd in its selection in a couple of instances.

The first DVD has a 1978 un-broadcast session by the jazz-rock supergroup Tony Williams Lifetime for the TV show Beat Club, and with John McLaughlin on guitar this is, to these ears at least, of far greater interest than the pure jazz trio excursions included on the CDs. It’s great to see, but I would have loved this in audio-only format to be able to listen to at leisure. Splendidly, this is followed by the film of that 1975 Whistle Test concert with the Mick Taylor line-up, and it is superb to get this in its full audio-visual glory. The final disc, and second DVD, has a couple of brief performances on BA In Music (a short-lived BA Robertson show) and a 2001 Later With Jools Holland two-song slot, but the main event is another Whistle Test concert special from 1981 as Jack Bruce And Friends again – this time with the star-studded line-up of Clem Clempson, David Sancious and Billy Cobham. This set reaches back to include not only Theme For An Imaginary Western again, but also White Room and Politician from the Cream repertoire, and is another performance which is so full of quality that it cries out to be included on the CD format as well.

Overall, with an informative and interesting booklet also included, this is a release full of great performances, and also some eye-opening jazz chops from Jack to expand the listening horizons. It’s hard to argue with what is included here, but it really would have been a treat to have those DVD-only performances from Lifetime and Jack Bruce And Friends given the CD treatment as well. Still, despite such arguably trivial issues, as a celebration of what Jack Bruce did after Cream under his own name, and how he always shone in front of a live audience, this is a set which does its job and then some.