Thursday, December 25, 2008
Super Session - Al Kooper, Mike Bloomfield, Steve Stills
This album has pretty much been the Big One I've returned to over the years. From the Mike Bloomfield lick that starts "Albert's Shuffle" to the mellow, jazzy and maybe slighly out-of-place "Harvey's Tune", Super Session is my favorite white-guys-playing-the-blues album of all time.
The story is that Bloomfield was in the process of departing from the Electric Flag, the horn band he founded, before they recorded their second album, and Al Kooper had been deemed less suitable as lead singer for the band he founded, Blood, Sweat and Tears, than as keyboardist and composer. They both played on Moby Grape's Grape Jam album and an idea formed. Kooper called Bloomfield, with whom he'd first played on the 1965 Bob Dylan sessions that yielded "Like a Rolling Stone" and Flag bassist Harvey Brooks, and in one nine-hour session (also featuring Barry Goldberg on piano and Eddie Hoh on drums) came the first side of Super Session. Bloomfield suffered from chronic insomnia among other woes, so he bolted after the first few songs were recorded and Kooper had to deputize Stephen Stills to finish the album. It went gold in 1970, due in no small part, I would assume, to Stills' ascent with his pals Graham and David.
Make no mistake, the Steve Stills songs are pretty great. All three are Al vocal numbers. Takes on Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry", (a similar Bob original arrangement on The Bootleg Series Volume 1-3 featured Mike and Al) and Donovan's "Season of the Witch" are strong and melodic. Stills uses a lot of wah-wah pedal on "Witch" and the liner notes by Michael Thomas refer to it 'not being a war toy in his hands', whatever that's supposed to mean. The extreme flanging of Willie Dixon's "You Don't Love Me" used to captivate me as a kid, but now it seems completely over the top and distracting, despite some fine soloing.
But it is Mike Bloomfield who is the star of this show. He distills B.B., Albert and Freddie King, adds a little John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar to make a singular voice and comes out in my mind as the finest player to surface in the blues world during the 1960's. He's as at home on traditional Chicago blues as he is on modal excursions or on a Curtis Mayfield tune like "Man's Temptation". His side only has one Kooper vocal, the Mayfield song, and the rest is pure musical aviation on Bloomfield's part. Phrasing, tone, exuberance, soul and sorrow he brings to his soloing, and never does it lose its interest. This was Mike's apex, I think, as an electric guitar player.
At the time, only Eric Clapton was perceived as Bloomfield's equal; there was a Cream/Paul Butterfield/Bloomfield jam at the Cafe AuGoGo in New York April of 1967 that I would like to have been an eleven-year-old fly on the wall for. It shows you how similar stories end differently, unfortunately.
There is now a reissue of Super Session that has some bonus tracks: "Albert's Shuffle" and "Season of the Witch" have the horns stripped off, and there are two other Bloomfield/Kooper blues jams that are pretty cool if understandably nonessential. Kooper said that he had Joe Scott arrange horns on a few of the songs because they seemed to need "some kind of help". When you put the mixes up against each other, I tend to see what he means, especially about nine minutes into the second "Season". But it is great to hear Mike on "Albert's Shuffle" unadorned (un-add-horned?) and though I wish there was even more added to the liner notes, I also know you can't be too greedy.
If you've never owned a copy of this record (I've had it on LP, eight-track, cassette and now compact disc), I recommend it highly. If you're a younger reader, check and see if the parents still have it, as I still bet the vinyl sounds best. It was and is a touchstone in my lifelong auditing of Music Appreciation 101; I can't assume that it will be that for everyone, but Super Session is still some very fine listening forty years after it came out, specifically for the innovative and tasteful guitar playing of Michael Bloomfield.
I got a couple more of these in me, then I'll get back to the world at large after the holidays.