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Critic's pick: Jack Bruce

Jack Bruce

Spirit: Live at the BBC 1971-1978

No one will ever be able to accurately accuse Jack Bruce of modesty, be it through his musicianship (a fire-and-brimstone bass guitarist, although an often-overwrought vocalist), temperament (he was rumored to have once ripped a sink from a wall to hurl it at onetime musical accomplice Graham Bond) and ego (he told Rolling Stone magazine two decades ago that he had devised his “own musical language” and more recently claimed to have composed music while in a coma). Onstage and off — sometimes, way, way off — Bruce was an over-the-top rock 'n' roll presence from a bygone generation.

But Bruce also possessed a pronounced sense of musical daring. On Spirit, a splendid new collection of five BBC concerts spread out over three discs, the breadth of Bruce's career after his tenure with the iconic rock trio Cream is fleshed out with considerable clarity and immediacy.

Two of the BBC sets have been issued before — a September 1971 outing with Bond, the extraordinary British guitarist Chris Spedding, Soft Machine drummer John Marshall and saxophonist Art Themen, as well as a June 1975 set by the then-highly hyped Jack Bruce Band for the BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test.

Those earlier recordings sport dramatically inferior sound quality. In fact, Spirit is worth buying just for the warmth and detail that now emerge in keyboardist Carla Bley's contributions to the '75 concert. Cream/Bruce diehards might go on about the virtues of the initial releases. But as Spirit seems to be designed more for the curious than the completist, the '71 and '75 recordings are, as presented here, very much new finds.

The '71 set finds Bruce working a power-trio format within a quintet-size band. The drive of Spedding's guitar work and the looseness of the compositions (especially the jam-savvy Powerhouse Sod, which Bruce would soon play regularly with former Mountain members Leslie West and Corky Lang) result in wide-scale, celebratory boogie.

The real surprise is on the '75 set, one of the few live documents of the short-lived Jack Bruce Band with Bley and guitarist Mick Taylor. The latter had just left the Rolling Stones. Even pop-directed material like Without a Word reflects a jazz sensibility. But a mixture of denser tunes from what remains Bruce's most overlooked solo album (1974's Out of the Storm) and the first of two regal treatments of the album's title tune (penned by the late jazz drummer and onetime Bruce boss Tony Williams) defines the band's brief lifespan. Williams' Spirit is reprised on an April 1977 performance rooted more in pop, fusion and funk.

Finally, there are improvisatory excursions with British free-jazz saxophonist John Surman pulled from performances in August 1971 and September 1978. Neither set betrays the times. The interplay among Surman, Bruce and drummer Jon Hiseman, though exhibited in sets cut seven years apart, unravels without a trace of pop. It instead rolls with alert swing that never stays settled for long. Bruce's playing has more of a rubbery, Jaco Pastorius-style bounce on the '78 recordings, although one is at odds to say who influenced who here. What remains, though, are unspoiled portraits of progression in how the electric bass bridged rock and jazz. More exactly, Spirit presents an artistic intellect as vast and inventive as the ego that has too often overshadowed it.

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