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Posts from the ‘Blues’ Category

Jack Bruce 1943-2014

Jack BruceIt was around two o’clock in the morning, and a few minutes earlier the band called VSOP — Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams — had just finished playing to an audience of record industry folk in the ballroom of the Grosvenor House hotel on Park Lane. The occasion was the 1977 Columbia Records international sales convention, and the salesmen’s minds had been elsewhere, following their bodies out into the night as the performance went on. Few were left by the time the set ended.

The restroom door swung open. A short figure lurched out and stumbled straight into me. His eyes took a couple of seconds to focus before he recognised someone he had met a handful of times. “You used to be Richard Williams,” he said. “I used to be Jack Bruce.”

And now, following the announcement of his death today, at the age of 71, he really did used to be Jack Bruce. Here was a musician whose achievements now seems mind-boggling in their stylistic breadth. Who else spanned such a range of music — from Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo” to Carla Bley’s Escalator Over the Hill — in those years when a generation of young players, bursting with creative energy, were spending their lives venturing into uncharted territory?

The further out Jack got, the more compelling I found him. When I saw Cream on their first go-round of clubs, I couldn’t hear anything interesting. For me, that didn’t change. But the John Burch Octet of 1963: now that was a band, especially if you were fond of Blues & Roots-era Charles Mingus. They never released a record, but just before he died eight years ago Burch gave me a precious cassette of a couple of BBC broadcasts they made.

With Jack on double bass, Peter “Ginger” Baker on drums, Burch himself on piano, Mike Falana on trumpet, John Mumford on trombone, Graham Bond on alto saxophone, Stan Robinson on tenor (depping for Dick Heckstall-Smith) and “Miff” Moule on baritone, they played Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin'”, Oliver Nelson’s “Going Up North” (from Afro-American Sketches), Jimmy Heath’s “All Members”, Benny Golson’s “I Remember Clifford”, Sam Jones’s “Del Sasser”, Burch’s own “Nightwalk” and, best of all, Ginger’s wild arrangement of the prison work song “Early in the Mornin'”, first heard with the edition of Blues Incorporated in which most of the octet also appeared.

A couple of years later there was the amazing album by the pianist Mike Taylor, Trio, on which Bruce and Ron Rubin shared the bass duties: sometimes together, sometimes alternating. Taylor’s conception was that of an English Dick Twardzik, abstract and cerebral even on standards like “All the Things You Are” and “The End of a Love Affair”, and Jack was the perfect fit.

When I interviewed him a few years later, he’d made his fortune and there was a very nice Ferrari Daytona parked outside his manager’s office. But nothing could stop him joining Tony Williams’ Lifetime, a band who were never going to fill stadiums, even though they played two of the loudest (in terms of decibels per cubic foot) and most powerful gigs I’ve ever heard. The first, before Bruce joined, was in the early weeks of 1970 at a club called Ungano’s in New York. As Williams, John McLaughlin and Larry Young shook the walls, Miles Davis slouched elegantly at the bar, checking out his protégés.

In October of that year, with Bruce on board, Lifetime played a British tour. I went to see them at the Marquee with Robert Fripp, and we spent the evening glancing at each other in wonderment as the storm raged through the club, threatening to strip the black paint from the walls. I don’t believe the sheer ferocity of it, the unstoppable outpouring, the brutal intensity and sometimes ecstatic interplay, could ever be recreated. Sadly, their records didn’t even begin to tell the story.

Blues America

Muddy Waters at NewportBy the time I’d watched advance copies of both episodes of Blues America, the two-part series to be broadcast on BBC4 at 9pm this Friday, November 29, and in the same slot a week later, I’d started to think that the title was just a little bit misleading. The pair of programmes — subtitled “Woke Up This Morning” and “Bright Lights, Big City” — do indeed tell the story of the blues from the beginning to now, and in many ways they tell it very well, with lots of wonderful archive footage and many enlightening interviews. The viewer could be forgiven, however, for concluding that the real focus of the series’ producer, Mick Gold, is on how young white people in Europe came to love this music and to adopt its language as their own.

That’s a great story in its own right, a substantial appendix to the one that begins in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta and makes its way north to the great industrial centres of Chicago and Detroit. The things I particularly liked about the first programme (directed by Gold) included the images of Will Dockery’s plantation, the film of the King Biscuit Hour bus, the stuff about Blind Lemon Jefferson and the songsters, and the interviews with Amiri Baraka, Marybeth Hamilton, Blind Boy Paxton, Gayle Dean Wardlow, John F. Szwed, Robert Gordon and Tony Russell (a consultant to the series). Of course the music is magnificent, particularly the recordings made by Alan Lomax at Parchman Farm prison in 1947, the ones that made up the album called Murderers Home, which so deeply affected many members of my generation (and, I hope, continues to affect our successors). The exploits of Lomax and his father, John, are prominently featured in this episode.

The second programme, directed by Sam Bridger, starts with the transmigration that produced the urban blues of the northern cities: Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry in Chicago, John Lee Hooker in Detroit (the footage of the Wolf, in particular, is wonderful). We hear from such survivors as Bobby Rush, Billy Boy Arnold and Buddy Guy, and from Marshall Chess, Taj Mahal, Robert Cray and Charlie Musselwhite. Before long, however, we are starting to see the blues as “the portal for a whole white world to enter into the black experience”. That way leads to the Rolling Stones, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bonnie Raitt, who speaks very touchingly about the experience of performing with Hooker.

Is it unreasonable of me to resent the amount of time the programme-makers devote to the white involvement in this music? Probably. The arrival of a European audience certainly reshaped the careers of Muddy, John Lee and many others. But given that perspective, I can’t understand the absence of any mention of two figures, Jimmy Reed and Bo Diddley, whose work provided the basic lessons in blues-playing for my generation, which is to say the generation of the Stones, the Yardbirds, and so on.

There’s much that’s good in the series, however, and the last word should go to Buddy Guy, born in a small town in Louisiana in 1936, reminiscing about the day in February 2012  when he performed at a blues gala convened by President Obama in Washington DC. “That’s a long way,” Guy says, “from picking cotton in the field to picking guitar in the White House.” And if the last hundred years contained a bigger story than that, outside of war and killing, then it has escaped my attention.

* The photograph is one from the Chess archives included in the 2001 reissue of Muddy Waters At Newport 1960, a key album in the story of how white people came to love the blues. “Muddy had that voice and that very sparse way of playing,” Keith Richards says in the second part of Blues America. “Even talking about it, I still get the chills up the back.” Me too.