Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Al Kooper - Black Coffee (2005)

Back in 2005, Al Kooper, one of the lesser known but one of the more important 1960s classic rockers, released Black Coffee, his first solo album in thirty years. The founder of Blood, Sweat, & Tears gave us a very full, fourteen song album that clocks in at over an hour but it doesn't feel too long because Kooper's eclectic talents demand your attention. The veteran rocker and his backup band of music professors he dubbed The Funky Faculty deliver a set of tunes that don't sound like BS&T or his famous Super Session LP with Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills but he connects with his listeners anyway. Not every song is blessed with horns but there are enough of them to satisfy fans who were hoping he would give us something similar.

Kooper plays many instruments and he often recorded tracks all by himself. His one-man band outings are often looser than one would normally expect from such a dynamic. The best of these is a robust cover of The Temptations' "Get Ready" where he plays everything except for drums courtesy of Anton Fig. This version simply rocks.

The former Bob Dylan organist always has original, jazz inflected, and bluesy ideas. Both "My Hands are Tied" (an obvious Stax/Volt tribute) and Keb Mo's "Am I Wrong" prove that mandolin can play a part in R&B arrangements. "Imaginary Lover" is a ballad with touches of Philly Soul.

Kooper has a sense of humor too. There's a rather silly but pleasant essay on aging, "Going, Going, Gone," that he wrote with Dan Penn.

Two live tracks from 2001, an outstanding cover of "Green Onions" with superlative bass by Tom Stein and "Comin' Back In A Cadillac," an original tune that cooks for almost ten minutes are strong crowd pleasers. Both were recorded on stage in Norway with The Faculty.

The disc is not perfect. Kooper's voice is shot and it's almost unrecognizable from his BS&T days. There are two tracks where he plays the lounge lizard and while "How My Ever Gonna Get Over You" and "Just For a Thrill," are great musically and fine lyrically Kooper shows us he is no Frank Sinatra. The highlight of the former is an excellent alto sax solo by the Faculty's Daryl Lowery and on the latter it's Larry Finn's trumpet solo that saves the day.

Overall, Black Coffee is a very fine album that proves Kooper hasn't lost anything as a writer, producer, arranger, or as a musician and his surprising vocal shortcomings don't detract from the satisfaction you will feel after listening to this set.

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