Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Jack Bruce's "Silver Rails"

Having survived drug addiction, liver cancer, transplant surgery, and a reunion with his Cream bandmates, estimable bassist-vocalist-composer Jack Bruce returns with Silver Rails, recorded at Abbey Road last year, and it's a worthy effort from an unjustly underrated musician.

Back in the glory days of Cream -- barely two years, almost a half century ago -- Bruce tended to get overshadowed by his bandmates, but he wrote all the hits, and thus, collected more royalties (an irritant to at least one of his fellows, as anyone who's seen Beware of Mr. Baker can attest). More to the point, he sang mad poet Pete Brown's trippy lyrics (which also appear on six of nine Silver Rails selections), as well as blues borrowings, with a quasi-operatic fortissimo that paved the way for prog vocalists like Peter Hammill and John Wetton, and played a very busy Gibson EB3 that was the glue connecting Ginger Baker's polyrhythms with Eric Clapton's blues licks.

Since then, he's collaborated with both flashy rock guitarists and avant-garde jazzers, the super session mania of music marketing managing to obscure the fact that Bruce is a composer first. And if his melodies have occasionally flustered listeners who just wanted heavy jams, at his best -- on "We're Going Wrong," say, or "As You Said," or "Rope Ladder To the Moon" -- he's deployed his classical and jazz influences intelligently within a rock context in a way that's not unlike his contemporary Robert Wyatt.

So "Hidden Cities," co-written with Latin jazz conceptualist Kip Hanrahan, starts out like a Black Sabbath pastiche (with ex-Scorpion Uli Jon Roth, no less, on guitar) before taking off down a more convoluted melodic path. "Rusty Lady" is a blues abstraction in the manner of Cream's "Politician," with Bruce's '80s collaborator Robin Trower, once Everyman's Hendrix simulacrum, now displaying more of the raw emotionalism that was his trademark in Procol Harum.

On "Industrial Child," Bruce plays piano and sings a remembrance of urban decay, set to a gorgeous melody, with only acoustic guitar accompaniment. Then he cranks up his amp for "Drone," a sort of homage to the doom metal bass-and-drum duo Om, whose music he discovered via his guitar-slinging son, Malcolm, who plays the finely melodic solo on "Don't Look Now." A pleasant surprise is Whitesnake guitarist Bernie Marsden, who contributes some of the album's most stunning solo work on "Keep It Down" and "No Surrender."

Keyboardist John Medeski and drummer Cindy Blackman Santana, who play with Bruce in the Tony Williams Lifetime tribute outfit Spectrum Road, also make worthy contributions. But it's Bruce's compositions, not his heavy friends, that make the strongest impression here. Bruce's basic approach on Silver Rails remains essentially unchanged from his earliest solo excursions. His voice has mellowed a bit, and these days he's more of an ensemble player than a showboating soloist, but he still has as much to tell us musically at 70 as he did in his fiery youth.


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