Jack Bruce: The Thinking Man’s Golden God (One Year Later)

jb

The recently-departed Jack Bruce could have had no complaints. He made history, he made records that made people happy, and he made some money along the way. Still, as one-third of the first ever “super group”, Cream, he was never a true superstar—not that he had designs on being one. Ultimately, he was bass player’s bass player, a singer’s singer, a songwriter’s songwriter and, above all, a music aficionado’s musician. Jack Bruce was, to invoke an inevitable cliché, the consummate professional: curious, seldom satisfied, always striving, ever-developing. Decades after he secured his legend, he kept on going, because that’s what the real legends do.

Bruce’s Cream bandmate Eric Clapton has always been too coy for comfort about his own abilities. The other member of the trio, Ginger Baker, with his ego-starved belligerence, tends to greatly overestimate his place in the pantheon (Great? Yes. The Greatest? Give me a break). Jack Bruce, on the other hand, always seemed to have it just right: a quiet, never smug assurance, the refreshing combination of self-awareness and satisfaction. He knew what he was about, he knew what he’d done, and he knew that the people who really know—the musicians—understood his import.

To begin to comprehend, much less appreciate, the influence of the man, it’s crucial to recognize that he was a well-known, successful and respected musician before—and for a very long time after—his brief but essential role in the first (best?) rock power trio/super-group. Bruce, who was a bass prodigy focused on jazz, nevertheless earned a scholarship to play cello, presumably the proper path toward respectable employment. This, of course, was the early 1960s, so the freedom of jazz and, ultimately, the promise of rock, proved irresistible. After three spectacular but increasingly tumultuous years in Cream, Bruce blazed his own trail (14 proper solo albums under his own name) before connecting with jazz legend Tony Williams. As it happens, he returned to this material as part of Spectrum Road, in 2012—of which more shortly.

But ultimately it’s all about Cream, at least for the average fan, and the fact of the matter is if he’d only done those few years of work, it’s sufficiently seminal to make a career. More, it has a staying power that ensures he would correctly be celebrated as one of the better bass players, singers, and songwriters in rock.

There are lots of jokes out there about drummers, but can there be any question that bassists get the least respect? The singer is, well, the singer; the guitar player is the loudest and typically flashiest, the drummer often gets the (dreaded? obligatory?) drum solo, also serving as the smoke and/or piss break for the other players. But the bassist? Less than a little love for the most part. Bass in rock music and, to a certain extent, even in jazz, is like the sky; it’s just there, and even though we’d have no world as we know it without those stars and clouds and expansive space, we tend to assume it’s always been there, is immutable.

Bruce was arguably the first bassist not named McCartney to shift perceptions, by virtue of his songwriting acumen and the technical ability to pull it off. Simply put, after 1966 bass could no longer be ignored and the music, going forward, was much better for it. For proof, all one need do is listen to the great tracks with some attention to detail. Yes, just about everything Cream did satisfies on every level: conceptually, compositionally, and in terms of delivery. But pick up the band’s debut Fresh Cream and, if you can, listen with as sole a focus as possible on Bruce’s playing. Even if you’re a fan; even if you’re a huge fan, it is ceaselessly invigorating, humbling even, to hear how busy yet purposeful he is; to marvel at how freewheeling he is, always (somehow!) in the pocket; offering granite-hard support while also coloring and augmenting every second.

In our era of guaranteed victories, pot-shots via social media, and PR machines decreeing—as ever—what we should like and who should matter most, let’s celebrate the cheekiness of calling themselves Cream. That’s not a name, it’s a gauntlet. It’s also the right mix of cockiness and certainty: they were the best, and were fully prepared to prove it. They did, as their uber-influential (think Led Zep and Jethro Tull, just to name two huge bands whose earliest work was practically a sonic thank-you note to what Cream made possible) career demonstrated. But then they took it to a whole other level, making work that is quite unlike what anyone did, or has been able to imitate or improve upon.

And a lot of people might assume, understandably (?) that Clapton was the singer anyway since, of course, he’s Eric Clapton. He was Eric Clapton, he became Eric Clapton, and he’s still Eric Clapton. But no, that is Jack Bruce on just about every song. Cream had the self-proclaimed best drummer in the world and God on lead guitar, so even though Jack Bruce had chief songwriting duties and was possibly the most gifted bassist on the planet, it was his vocals that made Bruce at once the wild card and complete package. The result was many things to many people: postmodern blues, proto-psychedelia, even a precursor to heavy metal. Truth in advertising, this work remains the cream of the crop; Cream is the thinking man’s hammer of the gods.

PSA: If your acquaintance with this band involves the hits heard on the radio, dig deeper, even though “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room”, “Strange Brew”, “Crossroads”, and “Tales of Brave Ulysses”—do they play that one on the radio anymore?—are fantastic. Pick up Disraeli Gears at your earliest opportunity and savor perfection.

It’s the lesser-known tracks (I’m thinking the tri-fecta of “World of Pain”, “Dance the Night Away” and especially “We’re Going Wrong”) that showcase everything that’s so superlative and distinctive about this band. Baker is typically all over the place (in a good way), rolling and tumbling with an understated fury that is remarkable; Clapton uses his wah-wah pedal and technical proficiency to paint one of the earliest—and purest—monuments to psychedelia. You can almost taste the notes and see the sounds inside the colors … or perhaps that’s just the cover art.

It’s Bruce, however, who does superhuman work throughout. First, his vocals, never fully appreciated in this writer’s estimation, are—aside from being unassailable—perfectly suited to the material. The mournful but not melodramatic delivery on “World of Pain” is astonishing; the ebullience on “Dance the Night Away” (that harmonizing!) and the gentle resignation of “We’re Going Wrong”: this is all top-shelf, time-capsule shit. Even a lark like “SWLABR” (She Walks Like A Bearded Rainbow) is so brimming with invention, originality, and élan it becomes a tour de force, delivered in two minutes and change. And those vocals!

Here’s the thing: this wasn’t merely rock music; this was a band, entirely locked-in, creating a sound and feeling that resulted in indelible music. It may sound dated to some, and certain haters are simply never going to accept those transition years where rock musicians got (too?) serious. Much credit, as always, must be given to the Beatles, but at the same time, Cream was not pushing boundaries so much as scoffing at them; stepping over them, catapulting the genre into an entirely different stratosphere.

Like his estranged mates, Bruce became a peripatetic icon, staying true to his vision while using that artistic restlessness to explore new places, people, and possibilities. His work with Tony Williams (in Lifetime) is, in its way, as satisfying—and impressive—as anything he did with Cream. Not for nothing was this “just” sitting in with jazz icons, he was playing with Tony M.F.-ing Williams, a drummer whose boots Baker should have been honored to lick. This isn’t just about branching out, or establishing cred—as if that mattered to Bruce—it was about the best in the business, relishing the chance to challenge and inspire one another.

This is why, after some uneasy (but remunerative) reunions with Cream, much more solo work, and collaborations with some of the bigger names in the business (see: Ringo Starr), it was his return to the Tony Williams tribute band, Spectrum Road (along with Vernon Reid, John Medeski, and Cindy Blackman Santana), that made so much sense, and lends a special closure. I was fortunate enough to catch this act in the summer of 2012 and can attest, Jack Bruce was still bringing it.

During my discussion with Vernon Reid, the Living Colour guitarist could not say enough good things about the bass player he’d long admired: “Jack Bruce is that guy. We are all in awe of him, but he is so open and, of course, he has been involved in music on so many levels for so many years … it’s just astounding.”

Yes, Jack Bruce was an original whose influence is difficult to properly quantify. Yes, he will be missed and never replaced. And yes, the music he made will make him impossible to ever forget. Jack Bruce didn’t need music videos, laser shows, dry ice, PR Kits, and crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics. He let his playing speak, so his work—and life—remains an inspiration for anyone who hopes to understand how it’s properly done.

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Jack Bruce: The Thinking Man’s Golden God

jb

The recently-departed Jack Bruce could have had no complaints. He made history, he made records that made people happy, and he made some money along the way. Still, as one-third of the first ever “super group”, Cream, he was never a true superstar—not that he had designs on being one. Ultimately, he was bass player’s bass player, a singer’s singer, a songwriter’s songwriter and, above all, a music aficionado’s musician. Jack Bruce was, to invoke an inevitable cliché, the consummate professional: curious, seldom satisfied, always striving, ever-developing. Decades after he secured his legend, he kept on going, because that’s what the real legends do.

Bruce’s Cream bandmate Eric Clapton has always been too coy for comfort about his own abilities. The other member of the trio, Ginger Baker, with his ego-starved belligerence, tends to greatly overestimate his place in the pantheon (Great? Yes. The Greatest? Give me a break). Jack Bruce, on the other hand, always seemed to have it just right: a quiet, never smug assurance, the refreshing combination of self-awareness and satisfaction. He knew what he was about, he knew what he’d done, and he knew that the people who really know—the musicians—understood his import.

To begin to comprehend, much less appreciate, the influence of the man, it’s crucial to recognize that he was a well-known, successful and respected musician before—and for a very long time after—his brief but essential role in the first (best?) rock power trio/super-group. Bruce, who was a bass prodigy focused on jazz, nevertheless earned a scholarship to play cello, presumably the proper path toward respectable employment. This, of course, was the early 1960s, so the freedom of jazz and, ultimately, the promise of rock, proved irresistible. After three spectacular but increasingly tumultuous years in Cream, Bruce blazed his own trail (14 proper solo albums under his own name) before connecting with jazz legend Tony Williams. As it happens, he returned to this material as part of Spectrum Road, in 2012—of which more shortly.

But ultimately it’s all about Cream, at least for the average fan, and the fact of the matter is if he’d only done those few years of work, it’s sufficiently seminal to make a career. More, it has a staying power that ensures he would correctly be celebrated as one of the better bass players, singers, and songwriters in rock.

There are lots of jokes out there about drummers, but can there be any question that bassists get the least respect? The singer is, well, the singer; the guitar player is the loudest and typically flashiest, the drummer often gets the (dreaded? obligatory?) drum solo, also serving as the smoke and/or piss break for the other players. But the bassist? Less than a little love for the most part. Bass in rock music and, to a certain extent, even in jazz, is like the sky; it’s just there, and even though we’d have no world as we know it without those stars and clouds and expansive space, we tend to assume it’s always been there, is immutable.

Bruce was arguably the first bassist not named McCartney to shift perceptions, by virtue of his songwriting acumen and the technical ability to pull it off. Simply put, after 1966 bass could no longer be ignored and the music, going forward, was much better for it. For proof, all one need do is listen to the great tracks with some attention to detail. Yes, just about everything Cream did satisfies on every level: conceptually, compositionally, and in terms of delivery. But pick up the band’s debut Fresh Cream and, if you can, listen with as sole a focus as possible on Bruce’s playing. Even if you’re a fan; even if you’re a huge fan, it is ceaselessly invigorating, humbling even, to hear how busy yet purposeful he is; to marvel at how freewheeling he is, always (somehow!) in the pocket; offering granite-hard support while also coloring and augmenting every second.

In our era of guaranteed victories, pot-shots via social media, and PR machines decreeing—as ever—what we should like and who should matter most, let’s celebrate the cheekiness of calling themselves Cream. That’s not a name, it’s a gauntlet. It’s also the right mix of cockiness and certainty: they were the best, and were fully prepared to prove it. They did, as their uber-influential (think Led Zep and Jethro Tull, just to name two huge bands whose earliest work was practically a sonic thank-you note to what Cream made possible) career demonstrated. But then they took it to a whole other level, making work that is quite unlike what anyone did, or has been able to imitate or improve upon.

And a lot of people might assume, understandably (?) that Clapton was the singer anyway since, of course, he’s Eric Clapton. He was Eric Clapton, he became Eric Clapton, and he’s still Eric Clapton. But no, that is Jack Bruce on just about every song. Cream had the self-proclaimed best drummer in the world and God on lead guitar, so even though Jack Bruce had chief songwriting duties and was possibly the most gifted bassist on the planet, it was his vocals that made Bruce at once the wild card and complete package. The result was many things to many people: postmodern blues, proto-psychedelia, even a precursor to heavy metal. Truth in advertising, this work remains the cream of the crop; Cream is the thinking man’s hammer of the gods.

PSA: If your acquaintance with this band involves the hits heard on the radio, dig deeper, even though “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room”, “Strange Brew”, “Crossroads”, and “Tales of Brave Ulysses”—do they play that one on the radio anymore?—are fantastic. Pick up Disraeli Gears at your earliest opportunity and savor perfection.

It’s the lesser-known tracks (I’m thinking the tri-fecta of “World of Pain”, “Dance the Night Away” and especially “We’re Going Wrong”) that showcase everything that’s so superlative and distinctive about this band. Baker is typically all over the place (in a good way), rolling and tumbling with an understated fury that is remarkable; Clapton uses his wah-wah pedal and technical proficiency to paint one of the earliest—and purest—monuments to psychedelia. You can almost taste the notes and see the sounds inside the colors … or perhaps that’s just the cover art.

It’s Bruce, however, who does superhuman work throughout. First, his vocals, never fully appreciated in this writer’s estimation, are—aside from being unassailable—perfectly suited to the material. The mournful but not melodramatic delivery on “World of Pain” is astonishing; the ebullience on “Dance the Night Away” (that harmonizing!) and the gentle resignation of “We’re Going Wrong”: this is all top-shelf, time-capsule shit. Even a lark like “SWLABR” (She Walks Like A Bearded Rainbow) is so brimming with invention, originality, and élan it becomes a tour de force, delivered in two minutes and change. And those vocals!

Here’s the thing: this wasn’t merely rock music; this was a band, entirely locked-in, creating a sound and feeling that resulted in indelible music. It may sound dated to some, and certain haters are simply never going to accept those transition years where rock musicians got (too?) serious. Much credit, as always, must be given to the Beatles, but at the same time, Cream was not pushing boundaries so much as scoffing at them; stepping over them, catapulting the genre into an entirely different stratosphere.

Like his estranged mates, Bruce became a peripatetic icon, staying true to his vision while using that artistic restlessness to explore new places, people, and possibilities. His work with Tony Williams (in Lifetime) is, in its way, as satisfying—and impressive—as anything he did with Cream. Not for nothing was this “just” sitting in with jazz icons, he was playing with Tony M.F.-ing Williams, a drummer whose boots Baker should have been honored to lick. This isn’t just about branching out, or establishing cred—as if that mattered to Bruce—it was about the best in the business, relishing the chance to challenge and inspire one another.

This is why, after some uneasy (but remunerative) reunions with Cream, much more solo work, and collaborations with some of the bigger names in the business (see: Ringo Starr), it was his return to the Tony Williams tribute band, Spectrum Road (along with Vernon Reid, John Medeski, and Cindy Blackman Santana), that made so much sense, and lends a special closure. I was fortunate enough to catch this act in the summer of 2012 and can attest, Jack Bruce was still bringing it.

During my discussion with Vernon Reid, the Living Colour guitarist could not say enough good things about the bass player he’d long admired: “Jack Bruce is that guy. We are all in awe of him, but he is so open and, of course, he has been involved in music on so many levels for so many years … it’s just astounding.”

Yes, Jack Bruce was an original whose influence is difficult to properly quantify. Yes, he will be missed and never replaced. And yes, the music he made will make him impossible to ever forget. Jack Bruce didn’t need music videos, laser shows, dry ice, PR Kits, and crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics. He let his playing speak, so his work—and life—remains an inspiration for anyone who hopes to understand how it’s properly done.

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Via the Spectrum Road with Vernon Reid (Revisited)

vr

Listening to Vernon Reid speak is like listening to Vernon Reid play the guitar: you need both ears and all your mind to keep up. Ideas flow eagerly, thoughts within thoughts ricochet off each other, quotations and questions are sprinkled in like sugar and spice, and it is almost overwhelming. In a good way.

Keeping up with Vernon Reid in conversation is like trying to keep track of his career: blink and you might miss something. Though best known for his work with Living Colour, Reid has been an indefatigable—and essential—presence in the avant-garde community, involved in projects ranging from jazz (the postmodern fusion of 1984’s Smash and Scatteration with fellow guitar hero Bill Frisell), electronic/illbient (the Yohimbe Brothers, with DJ Logic) and the crucial work he’s done under his own name (most recently, the easily recommended Other True Self from 2006, which features a remarkable interpretation of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”).

Knowing how far and wide Reid’s interests and abilities range, it makes all the sense in the world that he was drawn to his latest project, Spectrum Road. A contemporary super group, the quartet features Reid along with living legend Jack Bruce (Cream), keyboard virtuoso John Medeski (Medeski Martin & Wood) and Cindy Blackman Santana (Lenny Kravitz). By no means a tribute band, Spectrum Road is nevertheless in every sense of the word a tribute to the late and very great Tony Williams. Williams, of course, was the drumming wunderkind who cut his first tracks at age 16 with Jackie McLean before joining the seminal Miles Davis quintet during the mid-to-late ‘60s. He then embarked on a career that found him blazing trails that had literally not been discovered. His early-to-mid-‘70s albums with The Tony Williams Lifetime caused predictable confusion and consternation amongst the so-called jazz intelligentsia, but it introduced him to a young audience who could pick up what he was putting down (and had the added benefit of allowing newcomers to work backwards and follow the ingenious work he had been doing for a decade). A harder edged fusion, his concept attracted the accomplished and celebrated Jack Bruce, who stuck around for a couple of albums.

The music—and resultant album, which the band is touring behind this summer—is faithful to Williams’s vision. Arguably, the composer/drummer’s work was sufficiently advanced and unprecedented that some folks (such as the aforementioned critics, who could scarcely comprehend, much less appreciate Bitches Brew) are only now getting their heads around what he was up to. In hindsight, it seems easier to describe Lifetime’s catalog as an exercise in seamless genre swapping, which included straightforward jazz, fusion (when it was a dirty word but had not yet degenerated into the neutered expression it became) and what we now simply call world music. Naturally, it tended to be rejected at the time as too rock-oriented and/or “out there”. To complicate matters, Williams had the audacity to sing on several tracks, which proved to be the final straw even for more open-minded fans.

“Lifetime was crazy ahead of its time,” Reid says. “There is a special resonance for me personally. You have the jazz-rock on one hand, and the fusion of jazz where his roots were. But there was a lot of alt-rock in what Williams did.”

Take “Where”, a track which, like the other Lifetime compositions Spectrum Road covers, does not stray far from the originals but is rendered in the distinctive styles of these players. This twelve-plus minute tune has elements of multiple genres but is ultimately unclassifiable, in a class of its own. The yearning (and sparse) vocals, here delivered in a speak-sing seduction by Blackman Santana, are like a rush of wind just before an electrical storm. Extended and ethereal introductory notes give way to a frenzied jam, violent but never veering into chaos. It sounds like a super-amped extension of the Miles Davis In A Silent Way sessions, anticipating the more experimental prog-rock that was just around the corner.

Jack Bruce is the obvious bridge between generations, having played with Williams, but also an avatar of classic rock. In fact, Cream was arguably the first super group in rock, and after the ‘60s, virtually every project Bruce has worked in has, by default, been “super”. Or, as Reid puts it: “Jack Bruce is that guy. We are all in awe of him, but he is so open and, of course, he has been involved in music on so many levels for so many years…it’s just astounding.” Having played with both Bruce and Medeski (in different settings) during the last decade, it was up to Reid to bring these brilliant musicians together. The fourth—and perhaps most scrutinized—member is the one sitting in the proverbial hot seat, Cindy Blackman Santana. In addition to drumming for Lenny Kravitz, she has also displayed her ample chops playing jazz, including her own Tony Williams tribute, 2010’s Another Lifetime. “Here is this beautiful woman with a real ‘60s kind of look who is just killing it on the drums,” Reid says. “Tony was a huge influence on her, which is obvious in her playing and her whole approach.”

According to Reid, the connection these four players felt was the result of serendipity, a happy accident. “If this was focused on the so-called ‘glories of the past’ it would be dead on arrival. Since Tony’s expression is only now being fully understood, we can take that momentum and run with it. We are totally in the moment, so there is a great deal of improvisation.”

Seeing the band perform, which is highly encouraged, is an awe-inspiring experience. One need not have ever watched Vernon Reid in action; all it requires is functioning ears to grasp how dynamic and busy (in a good way) his playing really is. But seeing him make all those sounds can be genuinely intoxicating. Watching him interact with Jack Bruce, laid back and flashing his Cheshire grin like a man truly enjoying himself, while trying to keep pace with Blackman Santana’s frenetic assault is a challenging, if rewarding proposition. And off to the side, calm and confident, is Medeski, busily building sounds like an eccentric architect.

What Spectrum Road is reflecting, and what Williams anticipated, is a world where information overload has become an unquestioned facet of existence. “We are in a culture that is somewhat insane,” Reid says. “No one can keep up with it; new trends are instantly passé.” At the same time, it’s a culture of conformity, or at least one where a certain sameness can provide security, if not success. “To carve out your own path as an artist, or even as a person, can be extraordinarily difficult… and there is resistance.”

Reid is talking about Williams, and the pushback he received, from critics, audiences and even fellow musicians (including, or especially the ones who respected him). Of course he could also be talking about himself. Reid, like so many of the best artists you read or hear speak, has seemingly listened to every album, read every book, seen every movie, and absorbed so many aspects of culture, both high and lowbrow. As a result, his style is inevitably an encyclopedia of sound: his influences and sources of inspiration are constantly alluded to even as he is busy inventing the future. In the course of a 90 minute conversation ostensibly focused on his current project, we also discussed names ranging from John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, Jimi Hendrix and Robert Fripp, Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, Prince Paul and Don Byron. He even made a point of insisting on a shout out to “Captain” Kirk Douglas (of The Roots), who in his opinion deserves more attention than he receives.

“This is really powerful and it’s not lost on any of us,” he says, explaining the mission of Spectrum Road. “These moments are measured, so we’re just loving the moment, loving that we finally got the opportunity to do this.” And the future? “There might be something with Medeski Martin & Wood upcoming, and of course Living Colour.” What else? “I’m still trying to learn the instrument, trying to find that individual voice. I always think of the great people who gave me advice or taught me how to think about things in a different way.”

This leads to a discussion of his aesthetic and philosophy, which are pretty much one and the same. “When a person means what they say they expose themselves,” he explains. “When a person is earnest he exposes naked humanity. Coltrane went all in. Hendrix was all in. There was no irony or calculation; this was their life, finding a unity of expression.” Once again he could be describing himself.

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Following These Footprints

Check this out.

A few years back I opined that the second great Miles Davis quintet was the greatest group of musicians ever assembled in one collective. I stand by that, and reprint the piece, below.

Listening to what they do on the seminal Wayne Shorter composition, “Footprints”, is as good a case that can be made for their sublime status.

Even after 20+ years, I find myself out-and-out marveling at what Tony Williams does on this track. The double-time, the outside-the-pocket pyrotechnics, the swing and the mother-loving soul. This is, truly, as good as it gets.

Miles Davis.

Herbie Hancock.

Wayne Shorter.

Tony Williams.

Ron Carter.

Those men, individually, are some of the most important and brilliant musicians of the last century. Together? Forget about it. This quintet (Davis’s second famous fivesome) was an unstoppable force and they made some of the greatest albums. In jazz music? In any music.

Miles and Herbie need little, if any introduction or elaboration. They were gods then and they remain gods, now. Seriously, you could spend years studying and absorbing the almost overwhelming volume of music they’ve made. And while the sheer quantity is impressive, the quality is astonishing.

Ron Carter (who, like Hancock and Shorter, is still with us) is certainly one of the best loved and highly regarded bassists. He also plays a mean cello (check him out making some of the most beautifully odd, or oddly beautiful music you’re ever likely to hear with the immaculate Eric Dolphy on Out There). To get a handle on his legacy, take a peak at his Wikipedia page. Just look at the number of albums –and the variety of brilliant musicians– his name is associated with.

Wayne Shorter is, for my money, possibly the most underrated genius in any genre of music. To be sure, he gets plenty of props within jazz circles and the people who know really know. And in his wise, humble way, he is probably cool with that. But his name does not come up quickly enough, or often enough in discussions of the true masters. And aside from his considerable proficiency on the horn(s), he is also among the most distinctive and consistently satisfying composers. And while Miles, who was without peer in assembling talent, had the vision and deservedly gets the lion’s share of the credit (he was the lion, after all), a good chunk of the material on those second quintet sessions was written by Shorter. And here’s where it gets unbelievable: all through the mid-to-late ’60s –at the same time they were in The Quintet– he (as well as Hancock) was dropping epic masterpieces on the Blue Note label (think Maiden Voyage, Speak Like A Child, JuJu, Speak No Evil –for starters).

And finally, the wunderkind. If you were to make a short list –and I will, someday soon– of the best drummers (I won’t say “in jazz” because the best drummers in jazz are, virtually without exception, the best drummers period), Williams would be difficult to top. He is generally regarded as one of the most exciting and original drummers (and if you think the invocation of the word “original” –that most unoriginal of invocations– is facile, just listen to him: few, if any, drummers could change tempos and go from smooth to scorching like him). Discovered by (the great) Jackie McLean, he played on his first session as a sixteen year old (on Vertigo, along with Herbie Hancock). Check him out on McLean’s next album, One Step Beyond:

Whenever the topic of Jazz comes up (why I love it; why anyone else should like it), I invariably mention John Coltrane since he is, in many regards, the ideal starting point and the one you always, always come back to. And then there is Mingus. And Monk. And many others (obviously).

But aside from John Coltrane’s classic quartet, there is no jazz band that can hold a candle to the second Miles Davis quintet. And if their time together was brief (relatively speaking), they more than made the most of their partnership. And, needless to say, they all went on to make several more decades of miraculous music.

Here is a quintet, from the quintet.

(Wait, I’m not going to elaborate on why this music is exceptional or what makes it indelible? Of course not. I’m not inclined to embarrass myself, or the musicians, attempting to unravel the inscrutable or explain the lightning-in-a-recording-studio chemistry that blessed these sessions. And, as (the great) Dewey Redman said, it’s all, ultimately, in “The Ear of the Behearer”.)

If this is the first time you are hearing this music, do yourself a favor and make sure it’s not your last. But I don’t need to tell you that, right?

“Circle”, from Miles Smiles:

“Pinocchio” from Nefertiti:

“Water Babies”, from Water Babies:

“Black Comedy” from Miles In The Sky:

“Agitation”, from E.S.P. (live):

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Via the Spectrum Road with Vernon Reid

Listening to Vernon Reid speak is like listening to Vernon Reid play the guitar: you need both ears and all your mind to keep up. Ideas flow eagerly, thoughts within thoughts ricochet off each other, quotations and questions are sprinkled in like sugar and spice, and it is almost overwhelming. In a good way.

Keeping up with Vernon Reid in conversation is like trying to keep track of his career: blink and you might miss something. Though best known for his work with Living Colour, Reid has been an indefatigable—and essential—presence in the avant-garde community, involved in projects ranging from jazz (the postmodern fusion of 1984’s Smash and Scatteration with fellow guitar hero Bill Frisell), electronic/illbient (the Yohimbe Brothers, with DJ Logic) and the crucial work he’s done under his own name (most recently, the easily recommended Other True Self from 2006, which features a remarkable interpretation of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”).

Knowing how far and wide Reid’s interests and abilities range, it makes all the sense in the world that he was drawn to his latest project, Spectrum Road. A contemporary super group, the quartet features Reid along with living legend Jack Bruce (Cream), keyboard virtuoso John Medeski (Medeski Martin & Wood) and Cindy Blackman Santana (Lenny Kravitz). By no means a tribute band, Spectrum Road is nevertheless in every sense of the word a tribute to the late and very great Tony Williams. Williams, of course, was the drumming wunderkind who cut his first tracks at age 16 with Jackie McLean before joining the seminal Miles Davis quintet during the mid-to-late ‘60s. He then embarked on a career that found him blazing trails that had literally not been discovered. His early-to-mid-‘70s albums with The Tony Williams Lifetime caused predictable confusion and consternation amongst the so-called jazz intelligentsia, but it introduced him to a young audience who could pick up what he was putting down (and had the added benefit of allowing newcomers to work backwards and follow the ingenious work he had been doing for a decade). A harder edged fusion, his concept attracted the accomplished and celebrated Jack Bruce, who stuck around for a couple of albums.

The music—and resultant album, which the band is touring behind this summer—is faithful to Williams’s vision. Arguably, the composer/drummer’s work was sufficiently advanced and unprecedented that some folks (such as the aforementioned critics, who could scarcely comprehend, much less appreciate Bitches Brew) are only now getting their heads around what he was up to. In hindsight, it seems easier to describe Lifetime’s catalog as an exercise in seamless genre swapping, which included straightforward jazz, fusion (when it was a dirty word but had not yet degenerated into the neutered expression it became) and what we now simply call world music. Naturally, it tended to be rejected at the time as too rock-oriented and/or “out there”. To complicate matters, Williams had the audacity to sing on several tracks, which proved to be the final straw even for more open-minded fans.

“Lifetime was crazy ahead of its time,” Reid says. “There is a special resonance for me personally. You have the jazz-rock on one hand, and the fusion of jazz where his roots were. But there was a lot of alt-rock in what Williams did.”

Take “Where”, a track which, like the other Lifetime compositions Spectrum Road covers, does not stray far from the originals but is rendered in the distinctive styles of these players. This twelve-plus minute tune has elements of multiple genres but is ultimately unclassifiable, in a class of its own. The yearning (and sparse) vocals, here delivered in a speak-sing seduction by Blackman Santana, are like a rush of wind just before an electrical storm. Extended and ethereal introductory notes give way to a frenzied jam, violent but never veering into chaos. It sounds like a super-amped extension of the Miles Davis In A Silent Way sessions, anticipating the more experimental prog-rock that was just around the corner.

Jack Bruce is the obvious bridge between generations, having played with Williams, but also an avatar of classic rock. In fact, Cream was arguably the first super group in rock, and after the ‘60s, virtually every project Bruce has worked in has, by default, been “super”. Or, as Reid puts it: “Jack Bruce is that guy. We are all in awe of him, but he is so open and, of course, he has been involved in music on so many levels for so many years…it’s just astounding.” Having played with both Bruce and Medeski (in different settings) during the last decade, it was up to Reid to bring these brilliant musicians together. The fourth—and perhaps most scrutinized—member is the one sitting in the proverbial hot seat, Cindy Blackman Santana. In addition to drumming for Lenny Kravitz, she has also displayed her ample chops playing jazz, including her own Tony Williams tribute, 2010’s Another Lifetime. “Here is this beautiful woman with a real ‘60s kind of look who is just killing it on the drums,” Reid says. “Tony was a huge influence on her, which is obvious in her playing and her whole approach.”

According to Reid, the connection these four players felt was the result of serendipity, a happy accident. “If this was focused on the so-called ‘glories of the past’ it would be dead on arrival. Since Tony’s expression is only now being fully understood, we can take that momentum and run with it. We are totally in the moment, so there is a great deal of improvisation.”

Seeing the band perform, which is highly encouraged, is an awe-inspiring experience. One need not have ever watched Vernon Reid in action; all it requires is functioning ears to grasp how dynamic and busy (in a good way) his playing really is. But seeing him make all those sounds can be genuinely intoxicating. Watching him interact with Jack Bruce, laid back and flashing his Cheshire grin like a man truly enjoying himself, while trying to keep pace with Blackman Santana’s frenetic assault is a challenging, if rewarding proposition. And off to the side, calm and confident, is Medeski, busily building sounds like an eccentric architect.

What Spectrum Road is reflecting, and what Williams anticipated, is a world where information overload has become an unquestioned facet of existence. “We are in a culture that is somewhat insane,” Reid says. “No one can keep up with it; new trends are instantly passé.” At the same time, it’s a culture of conformity, or at least one where a certain sameness can provide security, if not success. “To carve out your own path as an artist, or even as a person, can be extraordinarily difficult… and there is resistance.”

Reid is talking about Williams, and the pushback he received, from critics, audiences and even fellow musicians (including, or especially the ones who respected him). Of course he could also be talking about himself. Reid, like so many of the best artists you read or hear speak, has seemingly listened to every album, read every book, seen every movie, and absorbed so many aspects of culture, both high and lowbrow. As a result, his style is inevitably an encyclopedia of sound: his influences and sources of inspiration are constantly alluded to even as he is busy inventing the future. In the course of a 90 minute conversation ostensibly focused on his current project, we also discussed names ranging from John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, Jimi Hendrix and Robert Fripp, Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, Prince Paul and Don Byron. He even made a point of insisting on a shout out to “Captain” Kirk Douglas (of The Roots), who in his opinion deserves more attention than he receives.

“This is really powerful and it’s not lost on any of us,” he says, explaining the mission of Spectrum Road. “These moments are measured, so we’re just loving the moment, loving that we finally got the opportunity to do this.” And the future? “There might be something with Medeski Martin & Wood upcoming, and of course Living Colour.” What else? “I’m still trying to learn the instrument, trying to find that individual voice. I always think of the great people who gave me advice or taught me how to think about things in a different way.”

This leads to a discussion of his aesthetic and philosophy, which are pretty much one and the same. “When a person means what they say they expose themselves,” he explains. “When a person is earnest he exposes naked humanity. Coltrane went all in. Hendrix was all in. There was no irony or calculation; this was their life, finding a unity of expression.” Once again he could be describing himself.

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Sam Rivers, R.I.P.

Another irreplaceable giant has left the planet.

Sam Rivers, always graceful, elegant and cool as a mofo, certainly carved out his own niche in the jazz idiom.

While his work as a leader will –and should– be celebrated, he also did remarkable work on sessions led by his compatriots.

Anyone not familiar with this great reedist should proceed directly to the tri-fecta of Fuchsia Swing Song (1964), Contours (1965) and Dimensions & Extensions (1967).

Check him out on Dave Holland’s classic Conference of the Birds (1973), Tony Williams’s Spring (1965) and Bobby Hutcherson’s Dialogue. After that, enjoy picking and choosing from the gems he created over five decades on the scene.

In one of the early obits to hit the press, this revealing quote from his daughter pretty much puts the man and his work in proper perspective:

“Music was his life, music is what kept him alive,” said his daughter Monique Rivers Williams of Apopka, who also handled her father’s concert bookings and learned from him the joy of making music. “My father, in my eyes, was on vacation all his life. He used to tell me, ‘I’m working, but I’m loving every minute of it.’ Retirement was not in his vocabulary. ‘Why do we even have that word,’ he used to ask me, ‘there should be no such thing.'”

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Five Guys or, The Greatest Band of All Time (No, Really)

Miles Davis.

Herbie Hancock.

Wayne Shorter.

Tony Williams.

Ron Carter.

Those men, individually, are some of the most important and brilliant musicians of the last century. Together? Forget about it. This quintet (Davis’s second famous fivesome) was an unstoppable force and they made some of the greatest albums. In jazz music? In any music.

Miles and Herbie need little, if any introduction or elaboration. They were gods then and they remain gods, now. Seriously, you could spend years studying and absorbing the almost overwhelming volume of music they’ve made. And while the sheer quantity is impressive, the quality is astonishing.

Ron Carter (who, like Hancock and Shorter, is still with us) is certainly one of the best loved and highly regarded bassists. He also plays a mean cello (check him out making some of the most beautifully odd, or oddly beautiful music you’re ever likely to hear with the immaculate Eric Dolphy on Out There). To get a handle on his legacy, take a peak at his Wikipedia page. Just look at the number of albums –and the variety of brilliant musicians– his name is associated with.

Wayne Shorter is, for my money, possibly the most underrated genius in any genre of music. To be sure, he gets plenty of props within jazz circles and the people who know really know. And in his wise, humble way, he is probably cool with that. But his name does not come up quickly enough, or often enough in discussions of the true masters. And aside from his considerable proficiency on the horn(s), he is also among the most distinctive and consistently satisfying composers. And while Miles, who was without peer in assembling talent, had the vision and deservedly gets the lion’s share of the credit (he was the lion, after all), a good chunk of the material on those second quintet sessions was written by Shorter. And here’s where it gets unbelievable: all through the mid-to-late ’60s –at the same time they were in The Quintet– he (as well as Hancock) was dropping epic masterpieces on the Blue Note label (think Maiden Voyage, Speak Like A Child, JuJu, Speak No Evil –for starters).

And finally, the wunderkind. If you were to make a short list –and I will, someday soon– of the best drummers (I won’t say “in jazz” because the best drummers in jazz are, virtually without exception, the best drummers period), Williams would be difficult to top. He is generally regarded as one of the most exciting and original drummers (and if you think the invocation of the word “original” –that most unoriginal of invocations– is facile, just listen to him: few, if any, drummers could change tempos and go from smooth to scorching like him). Discovered by (the great) Jackie McLean, he played on his first session as a sixteen year old (on Vertigo, along with Herbie Hancock). Check him out on McLean’s next album, One Step Beyond:

 

Whenever the topic of Jazz comes up (why I love it; why anyone else should like it), I invariably mention John Coltrane since he is, in many regards, the ideal starting point and the one you always, always come back to. And then there is Mingus. And Monk. And many others (obviously).

But aside from John Coltrane’s classic quartet, there is no jazz band that can hold a candle to the second Miles Davis quintet. And if their time together was brief (relatively speaking), they more than made the most of their partnership. And, needless to say, they all went on to make several more decades of miraculous music.

Here is a quintet, from the quintet.

(Wait, I’m not going to elaborate on why this music is exceptional or what makes it indelible? Of course not. I’m not inclined to embarrass myself, or the musicians, attempting to unravel the inscrutable or explain the lightning-in-a-recording-studio chemistry that blessed these sessions. And, as (the great) Dewey Redman said, it’s all, ultimately, in “The Ear of the Behearer”.)

If this is the first time you are hearing this music, do yourself a favor and make sure it’s not your last. But I don’t need to tell you that, right?

“Footprints”, from Miles Smiles:

“Pinocchio” from Nefertiti:

“Water Babies”, from Water Babies:

“Black Comedy” from Miles In The Sky:

“Agitation”, from E.S.P. (live):

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