Jack Bruce remains one of the most enduring and fascinating figures of late 20th century popular music. By the age of eleven, he had already written his own string quartet while attending the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, from which he left at the age of seventeen having become disenchanted with his tutors and also due to the impoverished circumstances of his family. After a spate of travel he found his way to London, where he performed with a number of local dance bands and jazz groups, before joining Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated in 1962.
He quit Korner’s group only a year later to join Graham Bond, an early pioneer of R&B and, more importantly, jazz-fusion. Bond’s band also included John McLaughlin and Ginger Baker, and became one of the most seminal British groups (along with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers) of the early to mid 1960’s. But it wasn’t until 1966, when he was asked by Ginger Baker on Eric Clapton’s bequest to join Cream that he found his true calling, where for the next two and a half years rock’s first power trio racked up sales of some 35 million albums, including sell out tours across Europe and America. But in the months before Cream finally imploded in 1968, Bruce booked some time at IBC Studios in London, in hope of fulfilling his dream of making a jazz album with some of his previous and most prestigious colleagues.
Jack made a few calls, and before long he had Dick Heckstall-Smith (ex Graham Bond Organisation) on saxophone, drummer Jon Hiseman, and guitarist John McLaughlin. As Jack explained, “Because of the success of Cream I had the ability to go into the studio and record an album of jazz-based material. The compositions I chose to record were mainly those I’d written when I was eleven years old.” Now I can’t speak for anyone else, but I haven’t met too many people who’ve told me that the inspiration behind their latest creation was based on work they’d written before they were even capable of producing sperm. Or perhaps Bruce was already one of those wunderkinds who was just a few years ahead of natural evolution. Who knows.
The almost free jazz of “Over the Cliff” is the opening track, and is all energized drumming and schizo-sax, certainly not the sort of thing one would have expected from the man who brought us such rock anthems as “White Room” and “Sunshine of Your Love”. “Statues” is another experimental, sax dominated number, though by the 2:20 mark the band break out into something a little more structured and listener friendly, in that free jazz 1950’s sort of way. In other words, if you’re not into people such as Ornette Coleman, then is probably not for you.
On the medley “Sam Enchanted Dick/Sam’s Sack/Rills Thrills” the group sound like a quartet of cosmologists arguing over the nature of Dark Matter, each with their own point of view and theory as to what it is and how to find it. The saxophone on “Born to Be Blue” almost borders on atonal, something which I can’t say I’m a big fan of, but thankfully Heckstall-Smith doesn’t stray too far from the scales of normality, always managing to prevent the composition from wandering off into the farthest reaches of the avant-garde universe.
“HCKHH Blues” sees the band in busy highbrow affair, with plenty of tight yet nervous drumming from Hiseman, a little neurotic saxophone by Heckstall-Smith, and some angst-ridden guitar courtesy of McLaughlin. What really stands out is Bruce on double bass, whose technique is so natural I’m sure that even Charles Mingus would have been impressed. The same goes on “Ballad for Arthur”, a relaxing piece, with Jack plucking at the bass strings, while McLaughlin finds his inner Zen. One thing’s for sure, if you’re having a nervous breakdown, I probably don’t recommend this as your first choice of records.
The title track is perhaps the most accessible of the lot, and actually the one I enjoy the most. Yes it’s busy, yes it’s unnerving in places, and yes it gives my wife the shits whenever I play it, but there’s something about it which I can’t quite put my finger on. I guess like a lot of aspects in life. It’s the things we like after all.
Recorded over three days, in August 1968, Things We Like wasn’t released until 1970, once Cream was well and truly over, and Bruce had embarked on his solo career proper, beginning with the superb Songs for a Tailor in 1969. And although Things We Like failed to chart, it was received well by the critics, who regarded it as an exceptional study in modern jazz. While I’m sure that many fans of his previous band must have thought “what’s all this cerebral shit? Bring back Eric!”
Jack Bruce was a man of prodigious musical ability, and when he passed away in 2014, it was as if not just one star, but an entire constellation had suddenly gone out. Such was his contribution to popular music, a contribution which was as immeasurable as it was magnificent. He will never be forgotten.