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Jack Bruce 

Our critics' picks in new releases

Q: Who is Jack Bruce? A: The guy who played bass for Cream.

Hold it, baby. If that's your only memory of one of rock's ultimate enigmas, it's time for you and JB to go nose-to-nose: That's right, Bruce's Shadows in the Air features his finest work since the eclectic pop of Vertical's Currency, a mid-'80s collaboration with filmmaker Kip Hanrahan. Not so coincidentally, Hanrahan also produced this disc.

In the 33 years since Cream imploded, Bruce has ridden a musical seesaw, joining and quitting myriad commercially doomed bands (West, Bruce & Lang) as well as authoring a score of oddly uneven solo records. For every masterpiece (Harmony Row), he waxed a bona fide stinker (How's Tricks?). Was Bruce a genius, a fool or just rock's answer to Sybil?

Ain't nothin' crazy about Shadows. Fueled by percolating Latin hand-percussion and unflinching love poetry, this is a remarkable album by any measure. Straddling an unlikely axis between Cuban, prog, jazz and pop, the disc showcases Bruce's fatback electric bass and his maturation as a singer: He constantly shifts rhythmic gears as his voice flies around melodic hairpin turns. From growling white-boy blues to angelic falsetto, Bruce howls like a man possessed.

Since portions of Shadows' repertoire is rescued from Bruce's massive discography, graybeards will recognize a song or two, but they won't recognize the way he sings 'em--applying a jazz aesthetic to the pop material.

Another surprise: Shadows is an all-star session that doesn't suck. The guest list includes N'awlins pianist Dr. John plunkin' the 88s, several of the busiest Cuban drummers in New York and a trio of hotshot six-string slingers. While guitarists Gary Moore and Vernon Reid rave on rather anonymously, it's the third cat that lights a fire under Bruce's bony 58-year-old butt.

Yep, former Cream mate Eric Clapton shows up and, reunited with Bruce, transforms "Sunshine of Your Love" into a sweat-soaked cha cha cha. Clapton's guitar gently weeps. Bruce's bass cackles. And for a fleeting moment, time stands still.

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