Jack Bruce
Out Of The Storm

By Beppe Colli
Mar. 28, 2014

Though it sports quite a few unquestionably excellent traits - a very high degree of creativity in both the composing and playing depts.; a "sound" that's at times "harsh", and not really suited to easy consumption, but which in the end proves to be quite captivating (which in a way could be considered as being a good definition of "rock"); and musical ingredients that make it an individual item in the artist's discography - Out Of The Storm is definitely not the first title that comes to mind when one thinks about Jack Bruce. It could be argued that the album in question comes a distant third in the artist's oeuvre, after those "acknowledged masterpieces" titled Songs For A Tailor and Harmony Row, and it's not my intention here to upturn this accepted hierarchy.

Out Of The Storm shows the artist immersed in a deep state of existential crisis, trying hard to overcome the difficulties in front of him - some of which, it goes without saying, of his own making. It's funny to notice that while the title of the album is Out Of The Storm, the track that deals with "stormy" topics is called Into The Storm, the album title so portraying the hope that, in the end, all will be fine. Maybe by chance, the succession of those images appearing on the front cover of the first four Jack Bruce albums shows the artist getting "smaller" - there's a large close-up on Songs For A Tailor, a full figure on Things We Like, a mid-sized torso on Harmony Row, and a tiny figure placed at the center of the scene on Out Of The Storm, the back cover "showing" the artist hidden among plants in dark fields.

First solo album, and the only one that charted, Songs For A Tailor ('69) is quite varied and lively, a kaleidoscope of diverse styles and orchestrations (the winds! the cello! the keyboards! the drums! the bass!) that's proudly conscious of the high quality of the material it presents to the listener. While the rhythmic subdivisions in Boston Ball Game, 1967 show how captivating "difficult" music can be, Rope Ladder To The Moon became an "instant classic" - that assertive electric bass paired with acoustic guitars and cellos - while the melodic Theme For An Imaginary Western soon turned into a kind of "rock standard", covers by Mountain and Colosseum appearing on record on both sides of the Atlantic.

Though equally varied, Harmony Row ('71) sounds more "of a piece" - with the exception of a guitar player and a drummer Jack Bruce is the only featured musician on the album - and there's a "song cycle" quality to it that makes it appear quite different from its predecessor. An important musical choice, here the bass is more "inside" the sound dimension, the whole sounding less "up-front", more "meditative". One important feature is the "thin"-sounding Hammond organ, which is so free to add colour, unburdened of the weight of an overabundance of mid frequencies.

Three very turbulent years later, Bruce decided to record Out Of The Storm in the United States, with the help of U.S. musicians, with disastrous results: it was only thanks to a complex re-mix job done later in London that the album appeared to incorporate an impeccable logic.

At this point there's only one question left to answer: Who is Jack Bruce?

Calling Jack Bruce "the musician who's mostly responsible for taking the electric bass into adulthood" is something completely transparent to me. But what about others? A big problem here is that for many, many years a stupid, ignorant attitude accused musicians who explored the least-trodden paths of playing "long, boring, self-indulging solos", while in fact what this attitude mostly revealed was how inadequate the listener was, when confronted with difficult material. Sure, we've all been through phases in life where we were dramatically confronted with the large gap standing between our understanding and what was really required. The problem becomes dramatic, however, every time a naÔve child writes for a music magazine.

Let's ask ourselves this question: Nowadays, who would decide to call one's group The Cream - meaning, the best of what's around? But if calling a group The Cream is surely not something denoting a humble attitude, one has not to forget that this name can also be meant to represent the pride of a craftsperson who's mastered one's tools - also the deliberate opposition to "easy music for kids", this being the "Beat" era, and all easy-listening music repeating old clichťs.

At first appearing as a semi-orthodox Blues band, after releasing their first album, Fresh Cream ('66), Cream broadened their horizons with psychedelic overtones and by increasingly performing original material, quite often penned by Bruce, on the album Disraeli Gears ('67). While a whole series of concerts - performed for the most part in the United States - saw the trio reinventing the form through long improvisations that for the first time saw rock music adopt the exploratory spirit of jazz.

The material released after the group dissolved made it possible for listeners to call the live version of Sweet Wine appearing on Cream Live ('70) a "perfect moment" in the group's output when it comes to both clear-thinking and instrumental balance. But if one thinks back to the material released while the group was still a working entity, one can say that the live version of Spoonful featured on Wheels Of Fire ('68) shows the trio painting such a vivid landscape that the perception of somebody first exposed to it at the time of its original release could be altered forever. (Wheels Of Fire was the first album ever to get a "platinum record".)

Of course, when it comes to the electric bass we don't have to forget the influence of Motown's James Jamerson. And it goes without saying that nobody in the history of music has played the bass on such a giant stage as The Beatles' Paul McCartney on such albums as Revolver and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But it was Jack Bruce's playing with Cream that showed that a lot more could be achieved on the instrument - and listening to such U.S. musicians as Tim Bogert of Vanilla Fudge and Jack Casady of The Jefferson Airplane easily shows that "being inspired by" does not necessarily produce similar results. (Here I have to mention a musician who's seldom mentioned: Andy Fraser, who introduced Bruce shades into the soul-blues played by Free - let's not forget that Fraser was still 19 when Free split for the second time.) There's also Chris Squire of the "classic period" Yes on albums such as The Yes Album, Fragile and Close To The Edge, where Squire created a peculiar - and in the end, personal - mix of Paul McCartney and Jack Bruce; it was mainly through Squire's influence that a version of "Jack Bruce without the Blues" became such an important part of the bass identity of "Prog".

As he later showed on his solo albums, the dimension called extended improvisation is not the only one where Bruce excels - just listen to the bass chord at the end of SWLABR; to the famous figure that opens Badge; and to the studio portion of Wheels Of Fire, where the meticulous production work of Felix Pappalardi enriches the group's instrumental palette with colours that make the group sound so different from their original "Blues" configuration.

Those who believe that "an image is worth a thousand words" are invited to watch the documentary from the Classic Albums series featuring the Cream album Disraeli Gears. Most of the story is there, and besides one can also watch a fine live version of We're Going Wrong, also an explosive live performance of Tales Of Brave Ulysses that's quite exceptional.

Though it's all discussed quite tactfully - but here, through the use of editing, facial mimic almost manages to tell the whole story - we are told of the old quarrel usually filed under the tag "psychedelic hogwash".

Let's backtrack a bit. At the time when the group was formed, both Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were much-valued instrumentalists. Eric Clapton was "God". And it was "Eric Clapton's group" - Clapton being "an angel who played the Blues in the style of B.B. King" - that Ahmet Ertegun, the boss of Atlantic, signed. A former member of The Yardbirds, Clapton became a legend during his stint with John Mayall, as one can easily see from the fact that the cover of the celebrated John Mayall album titled Bluesbreakers (a.k.a. "The Beano album", from the name of the comic Clapton is shown reading on the front cover picture) adds "with Eric Clapton". Let's not forget that the instrumental combination that Clapton used on the album - a Gibson Les Paul through a Marshall combo which immediately got nicknamed "Bluesbreaker" - soon became the combination of choice in many rock circles.

The problem? At the time, Clapton was definitely not a prolific writer. He was also a very reluctant singer. And so, totally by default, the material penned by Jack Bruce and (poet) Pete Brown, which Ertegun had labeled "psychedelic hogwash", became the group's main feature. So Bruce became the group's strong front-man who penned most of the hits, from Sunshine Of Your Love to Politician to White Room. And it's on those Cream albums that one can trace the evolution of Jack Bruce, songwriter, on such tracks as Wrapping Paper, I Feel Free, We're Going Wrong, Dance The Night Away, Deserted Cities Of The Heart, and As You Said.

How popular were (are) Cream? Well, nowadays charts and news are easily available to those so interested. Admitted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall Of Fame in 1993, it was in 2005 that Cream briefly reformed in order to play a few dates at the Royal Albert Hall, the venue where in 1968 they had played their last concert, which soon became a movie. At the time of said reunion, Baker was not well, while Bruce almost died when his body rejected a new liver he had been transplanted. It was in 2005 that I noticed an uncontrollable excitement on the part of some of my U.S. colleagues, who were frantically looking for a plane ticket and a way to access those U.K. dates.

As already mentioned, Songs For A Tailor was the only Jack Bruce album that charted, and I think it can be said that the main reason for this was that at the time the legendary trio called Cream was still fresh in everybody's mind. Of course, the big seller was Clapton, at first with the group called Blind Faith (featuring Ginger Baker), then with a very "American-sounding" solo album, and later with the legendary Layla, an album released under the moniker Derek And The Dominoes. It was after a long, dramatic struggle with many types of addiction that Clapton was embraced by "the mainstream", sailing safely through a very successful solo career.

A restless spirit, and a musician possessing a very complex musical background - classical, jazz, blues, you name it - after Songs For A Taylor Jack Bruce thought it only natural to release a "mainstream jazz" album titled Things We Like, where he played the double bass; to record an album with the "noisy, super-electric, fusion" line-up called Tony Williams Lifetime; to participate as a singer and bass player to the Carla Bley album Escalator Over The Hill, where he is one of the featured musicians; then he returned to the studio to record a new album of songs, Harmony Row. It goes without saying that by this time those who had hoped for, and loudly asked for, Cream-like material had already deserted the field.

It has to be said that not all nations acted in the same way: Continental Europe showed a more generous, favourable attitude than the United States and the United Kingdom - which is a good explanation of the reason why, a few years later, the Jack Bruce Band featuring Mick Taylor and Carla Bley got a warmer, louder handclap there.

It's funny to remember that once upon a time a triple album featuring quite complex music like the abovementioned Escalator Over The Hill could be found on the turntable of many "rock fans" living in Continental Europe. Jazz critics had declared that Escalator Over The Hill could not be regarded as being a jazz album, and why disagree? So we listened to this "rock album", starting with Rawalpindi Blues, and to Jack Bruce singing, again and again, "It's Agaaaaaaaaaaaain".

Which takes me to a crucial point. Let's place albums of songs on a "simple-complex" continuum. On one side we'll have albums by James Taylor and Cat Stevens (and Neil Young, and Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen), on the other such albums as Kew. Rhone. by John Greaves and Peter Blegvad and Desperate Straights by Slapp Happy and Henry Cow. Where should we place those solo albums of songs recorded by Jack Bruce?

It's a cultural judgment, and in the 70s U.S. rock critics invented tags such as "art-rock", etc. when those links to the Blues and to those strains of "popular music" became thinner, with the presence of "non-rock" traits became easy to detect.

But while this deals with the past, I think that with the passing of time the confines of what "an album of songs" can be have increasingly become more limited when it comes to both melody and harmony. Which is bad for Jack Bruce, given the fact that for him melody and harmony have always been objects of careful exploration. Even his "ballads" have always featured a sense of great unrest, those vocals showing the Blues going hand-in-hand with Opera.

After a fine tour where a good line-up played his solo material quite sympathetically, Bruce thought it was time to make a commercial move, forming a trio with a very strong Cream influence: West Bruce & Laing. This line-up could be regarded as the continuation of Mountain, the U.S. group which had filled the commercial space vacated by Cream, both on record and on stage, the "brain" of the group being former Cream producer and collaborator Felix Pappalardi, while the main soloist was guitarist Leslie West.

From a commercial point of view things went extremely well, though we know that contracts signed by musicians with their heads in the clouds usually have the habit of making their money disappear. Though for the most part they adhered to a given formula, the two studio albums released by the group - Why Dontcha ('72) and Whatever Turns You On ('73) - are not as bad as they sounded in the context of those times, when Cream was still a vivid memory.

It has to be noticed that those songs placed at the end of Side One and Side Two of Whatever Turns You On - tracks that to me have always sounded as being composed by Bruce alone, though the liner notes say otherwise - look in two different directions. Highlighting the piano, November Song is a close relative to those serene, melancholic-sounding moods that appear on Harmony Row, with fine vocals with echo from Bruce and a nice "Blues splice" moment featuring a perfect "woman tone" guitar solo by West, backed by an exuberant bass. Closing the album, Like A Plate is almost an anticipation of those tense climates appearing on Out Of The Storm, adding such disparate moments - and a whole series of "false endings" - that make the song, which is is quite average in length, appear quite long (but not because it's boring! let's call it "quite intense").

In 1973 Bruce was a featured musician on the Lou Reed album titled Berlin. I was quite amused by the fact that an album of "ignorant rock from New York" featured stellar performances by the bass player from Cream, a Zappa drummer, the keyboard player from Traffic, the drummer from Procol Harum, and so on. Funny or what? ("Men of good fortune" - tutý-turutururý - "Often cause empires to fall" - turuturýturýrurým!.)

The commercial destiny of Out Of The Storm was even worse than that of Harmony Row, those "hardcore rock fans" having already been satiated by West Bruce & Laing - and it's hard in any case to imagine those people showing an interest for an album of complex songs such as this one - while those who abhor compromise refused to have their ears getting dirty with the music of such a commercial artist such as Jack Bruce.

Those "first mixes" of five songs added as a bonus to the CD edition released in 2003 showed an enormous amount of recorded tracks and premixes, which in a way is typical of those whose ideas are not too clear, and who hope to "fix it in the mix" later. A close examination, however, clearly showed those featured musicians as being the main problem.

I still remember how puzzled I was hearing how limited and mundane a famous drummer such as Jim Keltner could sound on a Jack Bruce album. I also noticed how much more intelligent and musical was the contribution by Jim Gordon, whom at the time I considered to be a valid instrumentalist but not a "first class" drummer (but that period was really a golden age when it came to drummers). It was painfully apparent that Keltner had not been able to penetrate the peculiar logic of those (admittedly complex) charts, having Bruce place an emergency call to Gordon. On guitar, Steve Hunter - who had ably performed on the Berlin album (and, later, on Rock'n'Roll Animal) was okay, but his contribution lacked any real finesse or imagination.

It has to be said that at the time most guitarists were: a) self-taught, and b) tied to a rock-blues approach, their knowledge of chords and scales being quite rudimentary, people like Robert Fripp being the exception to the rule. Of course, the quality of the output could vary quite dramatically: though he possessed a limited knowledge, the lead guitarist with Procol Harum, Robin Trower, always managed to sound great, since Gary Brooker - the group's pianist and main composer - never failed to provide him with an episode inside the song where the blues scale did not clash with the chords (of course, we don't have to forget that Robin Trower had a big heart, just like Paul Kossoff from Free).

Playing on Harmony Row, John Marshall made good use of his "elastic rock" approach to drums. While a young guitarist called Chris Spedding, who from a technical point of view was just an "average" instrumentalist played fantastically well thanks to his great taste and his ability to play the right lick at the right moment: listen to those guitar parts in the dialogue with the piano on Victoria Sage, to those arpeggios that anticipate the majestic coda on Smiles And Grins, and to the "hushed" "mandolin" on Folk Song. (Let's also think about the fine guitar parts Spedding played on such quite diverse albums as Helen Of Troy by John Cale and Silence by Michael Mantler.)

It's thanks to Jim Gordon if mini-symphonies like Pieces Of Mind and One safely sail those troubled waters. Keltner plays well on a "stomper" such as Keep It Down (where it's the bass that leads the groove), on the R&B-flavoured Keep On Wondering (with a fine harmonica solo by Bruce and what to me sounds like a talk-box part by Hunter), and on the ballad Golden Days, featuring Bruce on vocals. Piano and bass brilliantly anchor Into The Storm, while the long vocal melodic line in Running Through Our Hands gets fine, original backing by Fender Rhodes electric piano.

In closing, Timeslip is split in two parts, pt. two being a "Cream moment" which sounds forced and even a bit out of place. The first part - the "song" - is one of the most beautiful things Bruce ever recorded. A bass played with a pick opens the track, with great use of accents, then it's Jim Gordon on drums, then the vocals, and the guitar; the harmony is quite rich - listen to the way the vocal line, already quite interesting on its own, becomes even more interesting when coupled with that bass harmony. Steve Hunter plays, then the song gets a bit less tense in the chorus. The whole sequence gets repeated - pay close attention to the way Jim Gordon hits different points on the ride cymbal - then it's time for a majestic, tense-sounding coda, which somehow never fails to remind me of Traffic.

Would the story have turned to be any different, had the 1975 band with Mick Taylor and Carla Bley not imploded, due to the usual, obvious reasons?

© Beppe Colli 2014

CloudsandClocks.net | Mar. 28, 2014