For a surprisingly brief period in the late '60s, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were the rhythm section for the juggernaut trio Cream. Since then, their respective musical careers have sped past the half-century mark to appropriate numerous shades of jazz and world beat music.
Still, that sliver of time when the two shook the world with the volcanic blues psychedelia of Cream — a sound that cemented the stardom of the trio's other member, Eric Clapton — will forever tower over the solo music of Bruce and Baker.
Two recent recordings — Bruce's first in 10 years, Baker's newest in 14 — make such comparisons fruitless, but ghosts from the past, albeit unexpected ones, are at work.
Bruce, 70, has a still-hearty vocal tenor that references his Cream legacy. You can hear it in the thick, pervasive melody of Hidden Cities and the rumbling bass groove that undercuts Rusty Lady, with longtime pal Robin Trower handling guitar duties. Similarly, Bruce's longtime lyricist, Pete Brown (their alliance stems back to the Cream years), contributes to seven of Silver Rails' 10 tunes.
But Bruce is no nostalgist. If Cream fans some of the flames on Silver Rails, Spectrum Road, the all-star fusion combo with whom the bassist recorded in 2012, sets the house on fire. That group's keyboardist, John Medeski (of Medeski Martin & Wood) is all over Silver Rails. He enhances the light dub-style framework of Candlelight, and Spectrum Road drummer Cindy Blackman Santana drives the ragged, rockish No Surrender.
Best of all, the new album's blend of retro vocabulary, fresh instrumental fire and vocal color sounds surprisingly vigorous. It makes this rock elder sound vital and, at times, even youthful.
Baker, 74, has zero interest in Cream or in rock 'n' roll on Why? The scare-the-children portrait on the album cover is practically a "no trespassing" sign for any would-be rock archivist. Instead, Baker follows the jazz and African roots sounds that have been his prime post-Cream preferences.
The repertoire takes few chances. Ain Temouchant was first featured on one of Baker's finest jazz records, 1994's Going Back Home (with Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden), and the traditional Nigerian tune Aiko Biaye is revisited from 1970's Ginger Baker's Air Force. But on Why?, they are retooled into lean, spacious, unhurried rhythmic exercises with onetime James Brown saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis.
Throughout the album, Ellis plays off of Baker's largely steadfast fills in a way that recalls the more meditative late-'60s records of sax giant Pharaoh Sanders. But percussionist Abass Dodoo often lights a greater fire under Baker, as shown during their extended drum duet on Aiko Biaye.
Mostly, though, Why? is a set of loose, unvarnished jazz jaunts with the Cream decidedly skimmed off.