Monday, November 5, 2012

Cream's usual suspects


Jack Bruce is not the stuff that harmonica heroes are made of, but his playing on "Train Time" from the Wheels of Fire album live sides was a big motivator for me to pick up the harmonica. That, along with seeing the original Butterfield Blues Band in a no age limit Detroit folk club called the Chessmate in the same period, the late Sixties. Bruce, while lacking chops as we currently define them, had tone, energy, drive, and soul. What he was doing with the harmonica was a mystery to me then, a mystery I had to solve. I am still playing harmonica 46 years later. I am still trying to solve that mystery
The Cream reunion was a significant disappointment; in the day they were hungry and ambitious and arrogant enough to think that they were the best on their respective instruments. This certainly fueled the long jams they embarked on. There were energy and an interplay that is still palpable in their live recordings from their period. Clapton was certainly a much more aggressive guitarist than he is now. The reunion was weak tea compared with the old days. Although everyone played well, generally, the performances were lifeless and make work. No one seemed into the performances.
This is a world away from jazz musicians who, as they get older, generally remained determined to play near the top of their game, that each performance of something from their repertoire was a unique and original artistic experience. This marks the difference between genuine improvisation and merely competent riffing.
Ginger Baker’s lugubrious drum solo, “Toad” by name, was the only percussion piece that I could fall asleep to; it wasn’t unlike getting used to the screaming and the crashing dishes in the apartment next door and falling asleep. That’s sad. The principle thing he did for me was to motivate me to discover the glories of other drummers, jazz drummers mainly. Jack DeJohnette, Tony Williams, Buddy Rich, Billy  Cobham,  Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones. Jones and Baker had a drum battle decades ago in New York City, with Baker and his ramped up drum set and Jones himself, the master behind the fury and pulse of John Coltrane’s finest improvisational extravaganzas, setting up a small kit. From what I read in Rolling Stone, Jones gave Baker several lessons in drumming that evening, proving that is not how many dream heads and cymbals you have, but what you do with them.
Eric Clapton has earned the right to be called a blues guitarist—no one sounds like him when it comes to this basic and beautiful musical style. He does, though, have a history of going through bands the way gluttons plow through pastries. A few years ago he did a series of concerts with fellow Blind  Faith member  Steve Winwood, with whom he performed a smart cross-section from their respective bands. It was a great combination, Winwood ’s and Clapton ’s singing a perfect blend of blues brine, and Clapton playing some the best guitar he has ever done in his career. Really, he makes much of his previous live guitar work sound workmanlike and perfunctory—on this session, he came alive.  The problem is having to wait decades for him to get inspired to play with feeling and conviction results in many other things not getting attended to.

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