Off-Ramp

Off-Ramp host John Rabe and contributors share thoughts on arts, culture, and life in L.A.

Peter Stenshoel's Album of the Week: Things We Like by Jack Bruce

With its truly horrifying cover and an arguably deceitful sales angle*, Things We Like could be a thing we don't like.  After all, by 1971, there were legion Cream fans, wanting fresh rock material from what is considered the original supergroup.  Those fans did not need to be sold a Jack Bruce album where the guy doesn't sing a note nor even touch an electric bass.  Worse yet (from one point of view) the whole thing is not rock at all, but jazz. 

If you happened to purchase this album under false pretenses, you have my condolences.  I, on the other hand, was ecstatic.  On a clue from Erik Jothen, I heard about a session from 1968 with the great Miles Davis sideman John McLaughlin on guitar, where Jack Bruce plays not just passable acoustic bass, but plays like a monster.  I found it immediately in the used record bin.  No doubt a disappointed rock fan or deejay had sold it.  

Completing Bruce's session were saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith and drummer Jon Hiseman, both alumni of The Graham Bond Organisation and John Mayall's Bluesbreakers.  Not only is the music here hair-raisingly good, it makes me want more.  It's like music from an alternate reality; one in which Bruce never played electric, and England's top blues musicians were also the hottest jazz cats.  

As for McLaughlin, he turns in a singular recorded performance; it catches him at an embryonic moment of discovery and invention.  One year later to the month he would be laying down historic tracks on Miles Davis' Bitches Brew.  Here, you encounter a raw, young guitarist, nevertheless so sure of himself that he can take harmonic risks years beyond the jazz guitar of the day.  For example, in the embedded video here, "Medley: Sam's Sack; Rill's Thrill's," listen to how McLaughlin takes the blues structure and inverts things, making perfectly logical musical statements by using almost purely inferential reference.  He plays with tone clusters, long low notes, and creates happy accidents with his small-amp electrics.  The tone is homey and living room, in stark contrast to his later Mahavishnu Orchestra stadium supersonics.

The late Dick Heckstall-Smith shows himself to be far more than just a bluesman as he teases fat sound in rough sensibility, plays multiple horns simultaneously, and proves he absorbed Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, and Ornette Coleman, while retaining a his own voice.  Jon Hiseman drives the crew with a swinging drum set.  Much of the improvised music of the day had been losing the syncopated rhythmic feel known as swing.  From Miles Davis to B.B. King, swing was being tamped down.  Even Cream's long jams were more of a sub-divided geometric groove, since Cream's drummer Ginger Baker was apparently working on a more African approach.  I'm willing to wager that Jack Bruce felt liberated in the swing of this set, and the musicians reflectively responded with the joy of music making.  In fact, even in the slow or somber tunes, playfulness graces the grooves.  Jack Bruce has always been a noted composer, and he turns out several of the pieces here, including a quick-tempo jazz waltz, a sad ballad, and a nice bit of complex minimalism.

Given how different this was from Cream, or Jack Bruce's rock albums, I can't help but wonder: Was Things We Like ever intended for release, especially in America?

*I like the dogs, but the sight of Bruce slopping up glop from the largest helping ever of bangers and mash is gross.  For heaven's sake, why not show Jack playing his upright bass?  Maybe with the other musicians?  Just a thought.

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