ROCK / Returning to bass: In the Sixties, Jack Bruce helped Cream to 30 million record sales. Now, the singer and bass player is back with his own band. Giles Smith met him

When Jack Bruce takes the stage at the Clapham Grand tonight, get a look at his bass guitar. Note the tuning pegs thoughtfully angled to suit his fingers. Note the body, sculpted for balance. Note the tiny pilot lights mounted in the neck, so he can find his way up and down it in the dark ('not that easy, after a few beers'). If you're a former member of Cream, you get your instruments tailor-made.

On the way up, though, you take your chances with the factory product, like everyone else. The first bass Bruce owned was called a Top 20, it was made in Japan and, on one memorable evening at the 100 Club, it nearly killed him.

'There was a surge of electricity, the strings burnt right into my hand and I got thrown across the stage, where I lay quivering until finally somebody kicked the plug out. They had to carry me into the dressing- room and I was completely rigid, so they laid me on top of the upright piano in there. And I seem to remember I was high for days after.'

Jack Bruce, who is 49, speaks with a quiet Scots voice and wears somewhat louder Versace shirts. Clapham will be his first London appearance for longer than he cares to remember. His new outfit is a trio, like the band that made him famous. They'll play some blues and some of Bruce's old material and probably go in for a fair bit of spooky improvisation in between. On bass and vocals: Jack Bruce. On drums: the distinguished session player Simon Phillips. On guitar: Blues Saraceno, a New Yorker so young that, by the time he was born, Cream had already split.

'I first took him on three years ago, when he was 17. Bernie Worrell was in the band and he complained, saying, 'I go on the road to get away from my kids.' When he auditioned, he was very rough but you could see the potential in the guy. He walked in with a purple mohawk and a plaid guitar, plugged into his Marshall, went krrung, and it blew up. So I said, OK, you're hired. He only had one knob on his guitar, just loud and quiet, and that impressed me too. I sent him off with a tape of songs to learn and he came back three days later with a bandage on his hand. But he had it down. He just lives for the guitar and it reminds me of myself when I was that age - bass and that was it.'

Like Saraceno, Bruce was 17 when he went for his first audition. Responding to an advertisement in Melody Maker, he slung his double-bass on a train and travelled from Glasgow to Coventry to audition for the Murray Campbell Big Band at the Mecca ballroom. 'They were doing Maynard Ferguson arrangements and Dizzy Gillespie big band transcriptions. The audition piece was 'One Bass Hit', with the Ray Brown bass solo actually transcribed. And I sight-read it, because I'd just come from college and I could do all that stuff, and I got the gig.'

Bruce says he then remained 'a jazz snob' until 1962, when he joined Alexis Korner's Blues Inc. 'Before that, I was down on anything with a back beat.' But then he started to listen to Delta blues and soon he was linked with the drummer Ginger Baker in the Graham Bond Organisation. 'We did something like 320 one- nighters in a year, which is why I tell people that I don't need much practice any more.' And in John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, he met Eric Clapton, 'who introduced me to even more esoteric strands of the blues'. By which time, he had traded his double-bass for an electric. 'I was hooked because it was loud: which is useful when you're playing with Ginger Baker, who plays hard. Suddenly I could be heard without sacrificing bits of my fingers.'

Cream only lasted three years (1966-69), but they sold 30 million records in that time. 'Funny to think that, at the time we formed, we hadn't started writing our own tunes and we were relying on Eric's knowledge of other people's stuff. In those days you would form a band and hit the road. I think now people might take a little more time - rehearse, maybe. Anyway, the songs gradually started to come. The first one I wrote was called 'NSU' about a sexually transmitted disease that Eric had. It's like an early punk song and I still play it sometimes.

'Our record label in America was Atlantic, and I must say they weren't too impressed by the music I wrote. I came up with 'Sunshine of Your Love' and 'White Room' and Ahmet Ertegun (Atlantic's president) would say, 'You can't do that, you can't have 5:4 time at the beginning of a pop song.' 'Sunshine of Your Love', he said, was psychedelic hogwash. But then it became the label's best-selling single at that point. I think there was a negative feeling about the bass player being the singer. I think they really wanted Eric to be the front-man of the band. But he couldn't really have done it at the time, it wouldn't have worked. I didn't want the job either, but it was like 'You be the singer', 'No, you be the singer', and I lost. At least I didn't have to have the curly hair, though. That was Eric's job.

'Thinking back on that band, it was really a jazz band, there was so much improvising by the time it evolved. We started off playing four- or five- minute tunes, but by the time we got to San Francisco in '67, it had started to stretch out. It became almost like an Ornette Coleman band, with Eric not knowing he was Ornette Coleman, Ginger and me not telling him. But there he was, doing these unaccompanied solos for 20 minutes, incredible stuff.'

Bruce says he sees Clapton 'now and again' and Baker, who was 53 on Wednesday, 'more frequently'. (When Baker played on Bruce's 1989 album, A Question of Time, it was the first time they had recorded together since Cream.) He got the urge to tour in a three-piece again last autumn, during Seville's 'Guitar Legends' festival, at which rock's aristocracy assembled for a jam session. Bruce performed 'Sunshine of Your Love' and played with Bob Dylan on a version of 'All Along the Watchtower'.

'It was great to get to know Dylan a little bit. I got the job of finding out what he wanted to play and communicating with him. Communication is not something he's famous for. He's one of my all-time heroes and I'm funny with that. I had been invited to meet him before, but actually bottled out, because I had a couple of bad experiences with heroes. I remember when Tony Williams introduced me to Charles Mingus at the Village Gate. Mingus is my all-time bloke. I did the terrible thing that people do to me sometimes: I said, rather gushingly, 'Thank you]]' And he said, very sternly, 'What for, boy?' '

The Jack Bruce Band has already toured Japan and Poland, appearing mostly at festivals. ('There's a certain crowd that will always come out for me, particularly in America: garage mechanics, mostly.') In September, they will go to Bill Laswell's studio in Brooklyn and begin recording an album. At all other times, Bruce will be in Suffolk, in the village he moved out to in 1970 when life in London started to swing a little too nauseatingly. 'I lived in Chalk Farm and it just got too much. Everybody knew where my house was and there were tons of people around every night, which I got fed up with. I've never regretted moving away. It probably saved my life.'

He says the neighbours resisted him at first, but no longer. 'I got phone-calls saying, 'We hear you're going to start a Roadhouse.' And I would say, 'No, I came here to live peacefully.' They thought I was going to tear the house apart and fill it with swimming pools. These days, though I hate to think so, you can be a musician and still be respectable. Charlie Watts came down not long ago. I took him into the pub. The village liked that.'

The Jack Bruce Band appears tonight at The Grand, Clapham (Box office: 071-738 9000)

'Jack Bruce: The Collection' is released by Castle Communications, catalogue number CCSCD 326

(Photograph omitted)

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