Jack Bruce knows something about being in a supergroup, having been a member of what many consider the original: Cream. Now, more than four decades after the supergroup dawn of Blind Faith, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and others, the 69-year-old Bruce is playing bass and singing in another brilliantly credentialed coalition. In Spectrum Road, he’s joined by electric guitarist Vernon Reid (Living Colour), keyboardist John Medeski (Medeski Martin & Wood), and drummer/vocalist Cindy Blackman Santana (Lenny Kravitz, Santana)—and the musical results are thrilling.
The quartet came together in 2009 as the Tony Williams Lifetime Tribute to play the music of the late drummer who, in 1969, formed the pioneering jazz-rock trio Lifetime (with guitarist John McLaughlin and organist Larry Young). A second tour, in 2011, convinced the players that their chemistry transcended homage, so they took a new name (from the Williams-McLaughlin composition “Via the Spectrum Road”) and continued as a working—and recording—band.
Bruce played in the 1970 edition of Lifetime, and eight of the ten pieces on Spectrum Road come from the Lifetime albums Emergency!, Turn It Over, Ego, Believe It, and The Joy of Flying. But this quartet forges its own path. On the album opener, “Vuelta Abajo,” each musician establishes an individual voice—Reid’s warp-speed, note-blurring guitar lines, Blackman Santana’s elegantly thunderous drum rolls, Bruce’s woofer-challenging, full-bodied bass notes and melodic runs, and Medeski’s spacy, sci-fi organ and mellotron—and locks it into a unified ensemble identity.
When Spectrum Road opened a San Francisco concert this past summer with “Vuelta Abajo,” a few patrons headed for the exits, stunned into submission by the audacity and volume. This is not polite jazz. The ferocious (yet nuanced) recorded performance throws down a gauntlet, as well, and clears the decks of any expectations listeners might bring to the experience. Those who hang in are rewarded with less confrontational explorations of mood and texture: Bruce’s unmistakable vocals on “There Comes a Time,” the upward-modulating “One Word,” and the psychedelicized traditional Scottish tune “An T-Eilan Muileach”; the unexpectedly hummable guitar melodies on “Coming Back Home” and “Blues for Tillman”; a panoply of precision drumand- cymbal polyrhythms; and a dizzying array of analog keyboard atmospherics and voluminous swells. For anyone with a soft spot for the icons of prog-rock and jazz-fusion—King Crimson, Yes, the Jeff Beck Group, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever—Spectrum Road is musical manna from heaven. On vinyl, the deep and wide soundstage grows even deeper and wider, and the space between keenly delineated instruments is filled with warmth that must have radiated from the musicians in the studio.
Supergroups were something of a joke by the time the 1980s coughed up the likes of Asia and The Firm. And fusion became disposable in the 1970s when it morphed into bland jazz-pop. Spectrum Road brings renewed credibility to both categories through jaw-dropping individual technique, cosmic group improvisation, and the integrity that comes with playing music for the pure joy of it. Emergency! marked the advent of electric jazz-rock: The double-LP was released six months before Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. The genre never died out, but Spectrum Road signals a welcome return to glory.