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Bass Players to Know: Jack Bruce

Jack Bruce
Photo by Marek Hofman, as part of the “Silver Rails” album packaging.

Time to throw a little rock and roll into the series! This column features Jack Bruce, the classically influenced singing bass player from across the pond.

So who is Jack Bruce?

Widely known for his work with Cream, Bruce has had an amazing career both as a band member and solo artist. Hailing from Glasgow, Scotland, Bruce grew up in a musical family. He began life as a classically trained player, specializing in bass, cello and composition, and he briefly attended the Royal Scottish Academy of Music.

Following school, he moved to London and dove into the rock and blues scene where he soon met drummer Ginger Baker. During the early- to mid-sixties, he played with a number of artists including Alexis Korner, Graham Bond, John Mayall and Manfred Mann. After meeting Eric Clapton while playing with John Mayall, he along with Clapton and Baker formed Cream. Although they disbanded in 1968, they made a strong mark both locally and internationally with their fusion of traditional blues songs and amped up rock and roll.

Bruce then devoted time to his solo material, releasing Songs for A Tailor in 1969 and many subsequent records (including a new record to be released in 2014).

He’s recorded and toured with plenty of other artists including Lou Reed, Frank Zappa, Robin Trower, Ringo Starr and this All Star Band, Mose Allison and Kip Hanrahan, to name some.

Bruce has been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award as a member of Cream, and continues to compose, record, and tour to support his records.

Let’s Talk Style

As I dig into some of the deeper cuts, I realize that one word can be used to define Bruce’s musical modus operandi: energy. This doesn’t mean that every song is a heavy hitting up-tempo number (although many are), but that his bass lines are up front, deliberate and enthusiastic.

Sonically, his tone has a similar positive charge; Bruce isn’t afraid to push the envelope (or the overdrive) in order to be heard. He tends to be more mid-range centric, which works well in a power trio and gives plenty of definition to the bass lines that carry the tune. He has less conventional taste when it comes to instruments, going from a Fender Bass VI to a Gibson EB-3 to a fretless Warwick, which further sets his style apart from other bass players.

Bruce’s work in Cream, and especially his solo material, is unique in the sense that he has plenty of creative control – the music reflects his willingness to explore and compose. Most of the Cream material is written by, for, and around the specific players and instrumentation, allowing each of the players to show their talents and play off of one another. Session bass players and hired guns rarely have the luxury of this much musical freedom (since they’re typically trying to please their employers), and Bruce’s energetic style speaks to this method of music making. A handful of Cream songs center around revamped pentatonic-based lines; they’re usually syncopated and composed with a hint of dissonance to add harmonic complexity. Other tunes pull from traditional blues patterns, such as the “box” or walking pattern, in order to create the framework of the groove.

Stepping out of Cream, Bruce’s solo work is a fusion of rock, jazz and blues with nods to his background in classical composition. Transitions from one section to another are frequently marked by this classical string section approach, using voice leading and counterpoint to give direction. His personal catalogue is extremely diverse, he continues to maintain his signature tone and strong willed vocals, and knowing that he’s written multiple hits that are still widely known today makes him a particularly unusual player.

Where Can I Hear Jack Bruce?

“Badge” by Cream

Cream: GoodbyeIt’s a fine time when the bass line gets to be the memorable hook of a tune and Bruce created a great one. In addition to the catchiness of the line, this particular song exhibits a number of musical characteristics deriving from classical string orchestration. Bruce’s line interacts with and supports the melody while outlining the chord structure—a great example of “soprano-bass counterpoint.” He also does a masterful job of leading the song from section to section. Take a listen to the quick descending line at the end of the verse; both the phrasing and note choice nod to a classical symphony.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out of Tune” by Jack Bruce

Jack Bruce: Songs for a TailorBruce taps into a number of different grooves by traversing between a funky root pedal, a walking blues pattern, and a descending hook with a triplet feel. Again, this is a great example of his tremendous energy; Bruce’s midrange-heavy tone allows him to stand out in the mix and further propel his aggressive 8th note pulses.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“Apostrophe’” by Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa: ApostropheThis tune has a compelling groove of funky, highly dynamic bass. While Bruce joins in with the head of the tune, he maintains a forceful drive throughout the “jam” and uses the full range of the neck to propel the song. He certainly pushes the limits of tone with an edgy and gritty overdrive; this brings the bass to the forefront of the mix and adds a certain “thickness” that fills out the sonic spectrum.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

How about you? What are your favorite Jack Bruce songs, compositions, recordings or performances? Please share in the comments.