Jack Bruce was a superstar for just two years — as one-third of Cream, with guitarist Eric Clapton and drummer Ginger Baker — from the summer of 1966 until the fall of 1968. But as a solo artist, collaborator and pillar of every rhythm section he has passed through, the Scottish-born Bruce, now 65, has been a crucial figure in British rock, electric blues and forward jazz since the early Sixties, making more than enough important, often masterful music to justify the six CDs in the new career anthology Can You Follow? (Esoteric). Bruce’s spell in Cream accounts for 14 of this set’s 110 tracks, none rare (barring some mono mixes) but all highlighting his distinctive strengths in the band’s convulsive democracy: that sharp, operatic-blues tenor (“I Feel Free,” “We’re Going Wrong”), the poignant, avant-pop ingenuity of his songwriting with lyricist Pete Brown (the haunting “As You Said”). Cream, in turn, left deep marks on Bruce. He returns to the power-trio format over and over here, in cherry-picked Seventies, Eighties and Nineties recordings with half of Mountain (Leslie West, Bruce and Corky Laing), ex-Procol Harum guitarist Robin Trower, Frank Zappa (the sizzling 1974 instrumental “ApostrophÞ”) and even Baker (in a not-quite-supergroup with guitarist Gary Moore).
But Can You Follow? goes deep where it counts, opening with an extended study of Bruce’s formative experiences as a sideman (often with Baker) under blues-boom elders Alexis Korner, John Mayall and Graham Bond. Most of the collection is rightly devoted to Bruce’s unique fusion of progressive-rock force, jazzy motion and Celtic-folk airs — with Brown’s distinctive, enigmatic verse — on solo triumphs such as 1969’s Songs for a Tailor, 1971’s Harmony Row and 1974’s Out of the Storm, and later, overlooked releases like the 1995 art-hymn set Monkjack (just Bruce’s voice and piano with the strange-church organ of Funkadelic’s Bernie Worrell). Can You Follow? — named after a brief, anguished ballad on Harmony Row — is aptly titled. There is a restless tempo to Bruce’s changes in direction and bands — one tantalizing lineup mentioned in the liner notes, with jazz guitarist Larry Coryell and Jimi Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell, toured in 1970 but never recorded — and even at this length, Can You Follow? only touches on provocative side trips like Bruce’s fierce 1968 acoustic-jazz session Things We Like, and his quick fling in drummer Tony Williams’ volcanic-fusion band, Lifetime.
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Another recent Bruce box, Spirit (Polydor), fills in more details, with three full BBC concerts, including a rousing 1971 show with Bond and guitarist Chris Spedding, and a ’75 performance with a short-lived band including pianist Carla Bley and guitarist Mick Taylor, just out of the Rolling Stones. You could fill another CD just with Bruce’s striking vocal and bass contributions to experimental song cycles by Bley, Michael Mantler and Kip Hanrahan. But Can You Follow? is the best kind of rock memoir, a rich account in sound of Bruce’s pursuit of the bold and new — often, after Cream, at the expense of success. “I never wanted to be a star,” he claims in the liner notes. “I just wanted to make good music.” In that sense, everything here is cream.