Read: The Jack Bruce Interview Part 2
by Brian Morton
Most songs start with an interval in my head, quite simply with the space between two notes
There have been headlong moments in Jack Bruce’s life and career, and some dark passages. His earliest solo records were a complex mix of folk, jazz, rock and psychedelia.
The now little-known Things We Like, effectively a free jazz record and a forerunner to what Bruce still does in his Tony Williams-inspired Spectrum Road group with Vernon Reid, Cindy Blackman and John Medeski, was recorded before and only released after his first song album. Songs For A Tailor (named after Cream’s stylist Jeanie Franklyn, who died in a road accident) opened with the rhythmically busy, brassy ‘Never Tell Your Mother She’s Out Of Tune’, followed by ‘Theme For An Imaginary Western’ and the much-covered ‘Rope Ladder To The Moon’. The LP also included the strangely eldritch neo-folk of ‘To Isengard’, a song that seems to have influenced a current generation of ‘freek-folk’ players, but which represented something a dead end for Bruce at the time.
The follow-up album Harmony Row was named after an actual Glasgow tenement, once famous to architecture students as the longest continuous houserow in Europe, and it perhaps stands as a symbol of Bruce’s career as a whole, marked by derelictions, sometimes close to creative or personal collapse, but with a consistency of line and community of purpose that is almost unique in contemporary music.
The opening ‘Can You Follow?’ with its strangely rising and descending line has always been admired by jazz players (the title has been used for a new six-CD compilation of Bruce’s work), but the album as a whole remains more of a coterie enthusiasm, albeit a close approximation of the eclectic run of its predecessor. ‘You Burned The Tables On Me’, ‘Letter of Thanks’ and ‘Folk Song’ are archetypal Bruce/Brown songs, while ‘The Consul At Sunset’ – once wryly described by a British journalist as ‘Edmundo Ros gone heavy’ – prefigured things Bruce would do later with Kip Hanrahan on such bizarre artefacts as Desire Develops an Edge and Verticals Currency. After the personally gruelling neo-Cream rock of West, Bruce & Laing, Bruce released Out of the Storm, a dark, chastened and at times disturbing record whose lyrical and harmonic beauty seemed to hover over a Messiaen-like abyss.
How did the songs emerge? Looking at the huddled figure on the cover of Out of the Storm, one can’t quite imagine Bruce out in the woods transcribing birdsong like the French composer. ‘Most songs start with an interval in my head, quite simply with the space between two notes. It’s always being asked how Pete Brown and I worked together, and contrary to what’s sometimes said, we did sit in a oom together and the music did tend to come first, though there was an instance, with ‘As You Said’, where I wrote the music and he wrote the words and they just fitted together. It’s a cliché to say that relationship is like a marriage, with the good bits and the bad bits, but there you go . . .’
We talk a little bit about the technicalities of being a bass player, about a beautiful Warwick fretless instrument, which has enough kinship with the cello, which Bruce still plays on recordings, to keep that aspect of his musicianship fresh. ‘It’s made from a piece of Brazilian rosewood, cut when that was still legal, I should say! I got it in 2005 and didn’t play it for quite a while. It has an amazing resonance.’
There’s a little talk, too, about the clarity he gets from aluminium cones in his bass speakers, a very different sound from those ‘dis-harmony row’ cliffs of Marshall stacks back in the 60s and 70s. And he enthuses about the young band he’s bringing to Edinburgh, how they support him and he guides them. He sounds a happy and contented man, these days, confiding a text message from his son who has just passed a philosophy exam, on Nietzsche: ‘I’ll do my best to defeat fascism with my pen’, it runs and Jack laughs gently over that. His children keep him up to date with things like thrash metal and daughter Natascha, also known as Aruba Red, has organised pledges to secure internet release of live material by Bruce and his Cuicoland Express band.
Perhaps because he was never quite ‘in time’ or of a very specific moment in British, European and American music culture, but seemed to float free with his own dreams and urgencies, Bruce has managed to avoid the fate of the time-locked elder rocker obliged to retread old material and mothballed gestures for the rest of his days. The more recent albums, like Monkjack and Shadows in the Air, neither of them so recent now, nonetheless have a quality of timelessness, a provenance that is only given away by technical rather than musical characteristics.
The whole career, one senses, has been the steady unfolding not of an eclectic’s bag of ideas and influences, but, like Messiaen, like Bach, of one fundamental idea, a space between notes, an area of sound between bass guitar and head voice, that hasn’t yet resolved into anything other than tantalising intimations. There may well be grand statements to come, or it may be that Bruce’s significance can only be assessed in the totality of that remarkable body of work, not so much songs as separate entities, but rather as Song.