Al Kooper: Black Coffee

[26 September 2005]

By Steve Horowitz

Al Kooper’s rock pedigree has few equals. He played with the Royal Teens (“Short Shorts”) back in the ‘50s and penned Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ big hit record “This Diamond Ring” in the midst of the British Invasion. Kooper was there when Bob Dylan went electric and performed the famous organ solo on the recently voted best rock song of all time, “Like a Rolling Stone”. Then he went on to record with the Rolling Stones (on French horn!), Jimi Hendrix, the Who, and other musicians in the pantheon of classic rock. Kooper co-founded Blood, Sweat & Tears, played super-sessions with Steven Stills and Mike Bloomfield, and discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose first record Kooper produced.

Despite his impressive resume, the prolific artist’s musical productions have declined over the years. Currently, he’s got a new CD out called “Black Coffee”, but it’s not because Kooper covered the famous jazz standard of that name (although that song would not sound out of place on this record). Playing the roles of producer, arranger, keyboardist, and lead vocalist, Kooper wanted a title that would express the bracing quality of the disc’s R&B-style rock and roll.

The album’s title may in fact fit Kooper’s idea of a cup of java as he’s old enough to remember when black coffee arrived lukewarm and didn’t carry much of a kick. Appreciating these textural qualities requires an adjusted sense of priorities. The same can be said of Kooper’s latest effort. The record’s best features involve subtle nuances of formula, with the old school master using tried and true methods to put a song across. The results are predictable, but Kooper and his band, the Funky Faculty, make listening an enjoyable experience.

Two of the five songs Kooper covers best reveal the overall sound he’s trying to capture: Smokey Robinson’s Motown classic “Get Ready” (made famous by the Temptations and Rare Earth) and Booker T and the MGs’ soul instrumental masterpiece “Green Onions”. Kooper’s version of “Get Ready” splits the difference between the Temptations’ sweet pop and Rare Earth’s more mannered effort. Kooper keeps the hooks, speeds up the tempo and emphasizes the bluesy nature of the material. “Green Onions” closely resembles Booker T’s version, and the performance comes off as homage (as if saying the original recording cannot be improved upon).

The strangest moment on the disc occurs during Kooper and the band’s live rendition of self-penned “Comin’ Back in a Cadillac”, recorded in Norway during 2001. Kooper instructs the Norwegians on how to put their hands together in rhythm, and then he gives the crowd an A+. Grading seems an appropriate activity as Kooper and his group all teach at the Berklee College of Music (hence the band’s name). “Comin’ Back in a Cadillac” does have its musical roots in gospel so Kooper’s invocation of a church service does make sense.

Kooper’s voice bears the signs of age; his growl masks his limited vocal range, and his expressiveness and phrasing take precedence over hitting the high or low notes. He’s not always successful or on key, (the nightclub stylings of “Just for a Thrill” don’t work as Kooper does not have the chops to sing the deeply emotional lyrics). Kooper’s voice sounds better on the more straight-forward blues efforts, such as “How My Gonna Get Over You”. As he gets in a groove and stays on track, Kooper pays more attention to the silences and lets the words fill the spaces like a horn in a jazz combo.

“But now I feel like most people just ignore me / I got one foot in the gutter and another one in the ground”, Kooper croons smartly on the Memphis Soul of his and Dan Penn’s co-written tune “Going, Going, Gone”. Although the song was written when Kooper was many years younger, the lyrics have more meaning now that the singer has aged. He knows that he and his contemporaries are relics of the past, and in some ways are playing out the streak. Even though his peak has passed, what does Kooper want to do? Well, the evidence here suggests that he still wants to rock.

Not a bad effort from an old cat.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/kooperal-blackcoffee/