Tuesday, July 13, 2021


 I have a number of live Cream bootlegs, and the quality of the playing from night to night varies wildly. Much of that is due to the fact that Bruce and Baker considered themselves jazz musicians above all else and were going to play around with three , sometimes four chord changes the way they would approach more complex and subtle things by Mingus or Dolphy. They played around with the beat, playing every coherent note that related to the chords, rather than lock into the changes like must rock rhythm sections did and give the singer / lead player a solid and dependable backing while they performed. I give Clapton credit for what he was able to do with the dueling improvisations Jack and Ginger were tossing at him.

 On Spoonful, I'm so Glad and especially Crossroads (WoF and Goodbye releases) he upped his game and at times made his limitations a virtue. His machine gun ostinatos, rapidly picked, created excitement . But the bootlegs reveal the limits of the approach when you have a guitarist who is technically outclassed by the rhythm section. He repeats his ideas, his energy level obviously drops , his playing becomes messy, bad enough that you wish Larry Coryell or John McLaughlin were in the guitar spot and not poor Eric. And, lets be clear that Clapton was using an awful lot of heroin back in the day, a drug that never gave anyone musician a long term benefit. 

A big guilty pleasure of mine is live Cream, especially this track, Spoonful, from Wheels of Fire. Sixteen minutes of loud, plodding, colliding, rolling, intermittingly brilliant riffing based on the two-chord Willie Dixon masterpiece. Jazzbos Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker , by Bruce's own admission, wanted Clapton to be their Albert Ayler. Clapton, alas, was just a blues guitarist with a great tone and solid sense of phrase and skilled in creating tension and release during a solo, but he wasn't a jazz player. He had, in fact, a pretty limited scope as a player, but in concert Bruce and Baker went to town on their lead player, shifting rhythms, playing counter melodies, weaving bass and drum patterns around Clapton's stunted -albeit gloriously expressed riffing. The style and temperament of the guitarist would have made for a different sound, for sure. Bloomfield could play the blues far better than could Clapton, but he was definitely jazzy, a man who does not get enough recognition for his contributions to jazz -rock fusion's creation with his work on EAST/WEST. The long improvisations would have been more fluid, jazzier. Something like I'm So Glad, for example, might have the guitar sound resemble Bloomfield's guitar break in the Electric Flag's "Another Country".

The maximal improvisations of Bruce and Baker forced Clapton to play harder, faster, slicing and dicing his minimalist blues playing, creating, in their best moments of hyped up jamming, a beautiful mesh of sonic assault. Spoonful is a amorphous mass of rampaging dissonance struggling to break free into some free jazz phantasm , but never growing the wings to soar as they must. The beauty was in how hard they tried to b e something more than a blues based band, encumbered by the fact that the blues wouldn't let them go. I get mocked for liking their live records much more than their studio efforts, but I don't care.

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