Blue Notes | South China Morning Post
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  • Jan 28, 2015
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Blue Notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2012, 12:00am

At the age of 69 Jack Bruce can be forgiven for wanting to relive some past glories.

The bassist, singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist enjoyed his greatest fame in the 1960s with Cream - the groundbreaking trio with guitarist Eric Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker which fused free jazz improvisation with blues structures, and rock rhythms and volume.

Cream lasted for only just over two years, but of the three only Clapton ever really escaped the band's shadow. Bruce and Baker have moved ever since between the jazz that is probably closest to their hearts and rock projects that have never come close to recapturing the original group's commercial success.

Cream briefly re-formed in 2005 for gigs in London and New York, and sales from the CD and DVD of the Royal Albert Hall shows have probably given Bruce and Baker, both of whom had been in poor health, some much needed financial stability.

Now Bruce is revisiting the music of another critically acclaimed band he played in shortly after Cream broke up: Tony Williams' Lifetime.

Lifetime was a pioneering fusion jazz band, originally comprising drummer Williams, who had just left Miles Davis' 'second great quintet', organist Larry Young and guitarist John McLaughlin.

The group's first album, Emergency!, released in 1969, is the best.

Williams' sprechgesang vocals are a love them or loathe them element of the music and the hippie-era lyrics have not stood the test of time well, but the combination of McLaughlin's frenetic and improbably fast guitar work and Larry Young's intense organ playing with Williams' restless, rolling drumming, remains truly compelling listening.

Young handled the bass parts for Emergency! on his organ pedals. But for the second album, 1970's Turn It Over, Bruce was brought in to relieve him of the burden. He was also able to provide rather better vocals then Williams, and although Emergency! tends to be cited as the definitive Lifetime album, Turn It Over is almost as strong.

The line-up changed radically for the third album, Ego, with Bruce appearing only for one vocal. Williams' Miles Davis Quintet bandmate Ron Carter replaced him on bass, and Ted Dunbar took over from McLaughlin on guitar.

Although Williams used the Lifetime name for other projects he led, Ego was their last album as a truly collaborative band.

The lives of Williams and Young were sadly both cut short by unexpected complications that set in during hospital stays. The two British members of the band have been more fortunate. Englishman McLaughlin stays busy with a variety of projects including his current band, the 4th Dimension.

Bruce is now on his second liver, but on the basis of Spectrum Road (Palmetto Records), is playing and singing his best in years.

Essentially a high-powered tribute band, Spectrum Road came into being as a result of Bruce working with Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid.

Reid asked him a few questions about his musical history and the two got talking about Lifetime. Spectrum Road - the band takes its name from a track co-written by McLaughlin and Williams on Emergency! - was formed to revisit that material.

The band comprises Bruce, Reid, keyboard player John Medeski from Medeski Martin & Wood, and drummer Cindy Blackman - a jazz player by background, strongly influenced by Williams, but better known for her work with Lenny Kravitz and her husband Carlos Santana.

The music on the album includes a mixture of tunes from the first three Lifetime records, including McLaughlin's Where and Carla Bley's Vashkar from Emergency!, Williams' Vuelta Abajo and Young's Allah Be Praised from Turn It Over, and Williams' There Comes a Time from Ego.

The album brings the Lifetime sound up to date with Reid and Medeski evoking McLaughlin and Young astonishingly well. Blackman's style is deeply rooted in Williams' and nobody plays Jack Bruce better than Jack Bruce. He also sings Tony Williams much better than Williams did.

The band is touring and would be a good choice for the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

The three original albums are also worth revisiting, and are available on CD from Verve.

Take Three

Three classic albums featuring members of Tony Williams' Lifetime:

Life Time (Blue Note, 1964): the Williams solo album from which the band took its name also features Sam Rivers on tenor saxophone, Herbie Hancock on piano, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, and three bassists - Ron Carter, Richard Davis and Gary Peacock.

Unity (Blue Note, 1965): arguably the best of Young's Blue Note albums, this is a pre-fusion set which finds the bop-influenced organist in the inspiring company of Elvin Jones on drums, Woody Shaw on trumpet and Joe Henderson on the tenor saxophone.

Things We Like (Polydor, 1970): recorded in 1968 while Jack Bruce was still with Cream, but not released until two years later, this free jazz blowing session - consisting mostly of pieces the bassist claims to have composed as a 12-year-old in 1955 - also features John McLaughlin on guitar. It is the only album on which Bruce, who is best known as a bass guitarist, plays exclusively double bass.


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