Jack's still Cream of the crop

HE says he's grateful to still be alive and may have just released an overview of his career, but rock legend Jack Bruce insists he's not finished yet.

Jonathan Barnes

“I THINK it will happen again, yes,” says Jack Bruce, sitting in the sunshine of his Suffolk garden. “Probably just one more time.”

Forty years after Cream split up, the singer and bassist of one of the 60s biggest bands is still answering the same question: are you guys getting back together?

This time, his response is positive, even if he stops himself. “I can't say anything more than that. But we are meeting up in October.”

Jack last shared a stage with his celebrated bandmates Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker three years ago for a string of shows at the Royal Albert Hall and Madison Square Garden. But that might not be the end of the story of the first “supergroup”. Not quite.

It would have happened already, he points out, if Led Zeppelin hadn't “hijacked” the tribute show to Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun in December. “We were the first band that was approached, and we agreed to do it at the Albert Hall; a nice, respectful tribute,” he says.

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“But it suddenly changed to the O2 and both me and Eric thought 'no, we don't want to do that, it's too commercial' - so it became the Led Zeppelin show.”

Jack has an extra incentive for wanting to do it all again. For the reunion in 2005, he was still suffering the after-effects of a liver transplant five years ago, which he needed after he was diagnosed with cancer. The transplant was a success, but a series of infections almost killed him. He knows he's lucky to still be here.

“I was quite ill for a long time after the operation. I was written off a couple of times - but they obviously didn't know me! I wasn't prepared to go yet. I was in a bad way, in a coma and it was touch and go. But the team at Addenbrooke's Hospital - and the person who donated the liver - saved my life. I'm very grateful to them.

“I was actually in hospital when the idea came up to do it (the Cream reunion). I wasn't well enough to walk, or talk. I wrote 'okay, I'll do it' in spidery writing on a piece of paper. It gave me a motivation to get better.

“I pretended I was well enough to do it, but I wasn't really. Now I'm firing on most of my cylinders I would like to do it again, selfishly, just to enjoy it this time.”

But that's not all Jack has on his agenda. Next month he's off to the States for a 22-date festival tour, which he says that will finance his plans to travel to Cuba record the third in his trilogy of Latin albums. He also intends to go to Japan for a tribute show to Tony Williams, the late drummer, and is preparing to do a big band record for the BBC later this year. Furthermore, he hopes to start work on a new album with the guitarist Robin Trower next year (they released their first album together, Seven Moons, in February). Not bad for someone who's just become a pensioner. “I don't feel 65,” he chuckles in his warm Glaswegian tones. “But then I do have to look in the mirror.”

JACK insists it's merely a coincidence that the release of his six-CD, 110-song career respective box set Can You Follow? arrives so soon after his 65th birthday. It's definitely not a statement of retirement, he's at great pains to point out. It is, however, a vast and varied body of work, from blues to rock to pop to jazz, taking in his early days as a jobbing musician, the power and the glory of Cream, a host of brilliant and bizarre collaborations, and the high spots of his 15 solo albums. "I wanted to call it My Life in a Box, but the record company wouldn't let me," he beams. "There's everything in there. It starts off in black and white, then goes into technicolour and comes right up to almost the present day, it reflects the times I've lived in. The title sounds a bit arrogant, but it wasn't my idea!”

By his own admission it's an "esoteric" collection; it's even released on a record label called Esoteric, as if to emphasise the point.

"Obviously it's thanks to the success of Cream that I can do things that really interest me,” Jack says. “I have a wonderful way of working that I can do the fun, 'entertainment' things, like playing with Ringo Starr's band, and it finances my more esoteric work, such as when I work with my Latin band. I'm very lucky that I have those two sides.”

While Jack's music has never been dull, it's those classic Cream tracks that have reverberated through the decades; the killer riff of Sunshine of Your Love, the psychedelic groove of I Feel Free, the pomp and majesty of The White Room. "I wanted to write pop songs that were valid, like The Beatles,” says Jack. “Those songs are very personal to me, but they are like my children, because they have a life of their own. Like with 'Sunshine', it's amazing, I've heard that song everywhere. It's like 'hello again'. It's very interesting…it's great…I'm very pleased about it.”

He stops in thought for a moment. “The thing about Cream,” he considers, “is we didn't want to impress the audience, we only wanted to impress each other.

“We didn't change to become successful, we didn't try to follow a formula to make a lot of money.

“If we had thought that way, we wouldn't have split up, because we were at the peak of our commercial success.”

In just two-and-a-half years, Cream had put out four albums, played hundreds of shows and sold more than 30 million records. After they went their separate ways in 1968, Clapton went on to secure his status as a guitar legend, while Jack and Ginger forged their own careers, with varying degrees of critical and commercial success.

But Jack is adamant he's never tried to emulate his better-known bandmate, which a listen to Can You Follow? confirms. “That kind of success was always very important to Eric and he followed his dream. Fair play to him. But I never really enjoyed the fame. I know lots of people say that, and perhaps they protest too much, but I'm actually a bit of a loony, to put it mildly. I really don't like fame - it means nothing to me if I was to meet the Queen. I was really happy when Cream split up because we were more famous for being us than for the music. When the Kennedy children came along backstage at Madison Square Garden I thought 'wait a minute, this is not really what I started out in this for. I'm just a bass player.'”

WHILE the hit songs he penned with his friend, the lyricist Pete Brown, might have bankrolled his subsequent career, it's also his freewheeling bass playing that Jack will long be remembered for. “Playing bass is just part of me now, like breathing or walking or something,” he says. “And, yes, apparently I do play the bass in my sleep!”

His style was shaped by his classical training, having started on the cello, and the young musician was inspired by jazz greats such as Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman. “I loved those wonderful composers and instrumentalists, and that's what I wanted to be. I took that style of playing with bass guitar and put it in a rock context.”

It's a style that has been much-admired through the years, and one that even the late, great Jimi Hendrix appeared in awe of. Hendrix had been talking about forming a band with Jack and Tony Williams at the time of his tragic death in 1970.

Jack's playing will also forever be linked with the drumming of Ginger Baker, back to his days playing upright bass in the Graham Bond Organisation. It's possibly the most volatile rhythm section in rock.

They have always quarrelled and, Jack admits with a smile, that will probably never change. “I blame him! He's irascible!” he says.

“We didn't actually have a row onstage at Madison Square Garden (in the reunion shows) but it was close. Everyone was waiting for it.

“I'm not going to chuck my bass at him - it's too valuable - although I did throw my double bass at him once.” He stops and grins. “That was a long time ago.”

But throughout the years, and at the Cream reunion shows, the onstage intensity between the two - and Clapton - is still there. “We used to take a lot of risks - I still do - and that's what makes it really interesting. It gets very intense. Although we had our problems, when we play there's magic there.”

UNLIKE many of his contemporaries, Jack has got plenty of time for today's artists. He whips out his iPod and there's Amy Winehouse and Radiohead alongside the blues of Albert Johnson and BB King and classical works of Bach and Stravinsky. “I do hear things all the time and think 'that's nice'. But I don't stick with a lot of it. I've got an overview of 50 years of music - I can just dip in and out of it.”

His legacy to music world doesn't just stop at his recorded work; all of his five children have followed his lead, albeit in their own way.

Son Malcolm, 37, from his first marriage, to Janet Godfrey, has found success as a composer, while daughters Natascha, 25, and Kyla, 23, are both talented singers and youngest son Corin, 15, is a keen singer and drummer. Natascha's debut album, Aruba Red, is out in August; art student Kyla has just graduated from Glasgow University with a first class degree.

The youngest three children are from his 26-year marriage to Margrit Seyffer, who is also his manager. “I wouldn't still be here if it wasn't for Margrit,” Jack admits. They have lived in their quiet corner of Suffolk for 22 years now.

Tragically, Jack lost his son Jonas, a talent pianist who founded the Afro Celt Sound System group, to a severe asthma attack 11 years ago aged 28, something which still has a profound effect on him.

“Anybody who has lost a child will understand; it's the worst thing that can happen, when your child dies before you. You don't know how to react. I still haven't come to terms with it. I gave up music for a year, at least. He played the piano and I just couldn't touch the piano for some time after he died. That's normally what I do as a form of meditation - sit down and improvise at the piano - but I couldn't do it.”

Having come through his own brush with death, Jack is determined to make the most of the rest of his days.

“You should go round smelling each flower, shouldn't you? Unfortunately you can't live that way - you become very precious and self-absorbed and I'm bad enough anyway.

“With the illness, I don't really talk about it a great deal because it's just something that's happened to me and I don't want to become that. I didn't want to focus on that or I'd get people saying 'well, he's pretty good, considering'. I actually think my voice is as good as it's been for a long while and I think I'm performing better than ever.” He flashes that impish smile again. “I'm a role model - for any other 65-year-old!”

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