Monday, 5 November 2012

Super Session- Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, Steve Stills

Super Session was an album really born of fate, Al Kooper who had acrimoniously split from the newly formed Blood Sweat and Tears was looking for a new studio project to keep him busy. Guitarist Mike Bloomfield had also left his band Electric Flag and was in search of a new project. Kooper has said that he always wanted to record with Bloomfield and provide him with a studio context in which to capture the incendiary fire of his playing, which had already been displayed in a live setting. The two had previously worked together on the Bob Dylan Highway 61 Revisited sessions, Bloomfield had established his reputation  with Paul Butterfield, pushing his playing beyond the boundaries of Chicago blues. It was Kooper's desire to capture this on record and so in May 1968 he booked two days of sessions in L.A to see what would come.

The album opens with Albert's Shuffle a tribute to Albert King, Bloomfield is in his element, slow burning Chicago style blues, each note bent and contorted he establishes a wall of sound where each note falls at the others feet. As producer Al Kooper creates the right setting, giving himself plenty of room to add tasteful jazz style organ licks he has the brilliant Harvey Brooks on bass who was starting to establish himself as one of the pre-eminent bass players of the late 60's, equally at home in a stripped back blues setting as he was in the cauldron that was the sessions for Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. It's this laid back setting where I think Bloomfield was most comfortable, he knew the blues he understood it and he could play it as good as anybody at the time.

Stop is a cover of the Howard Tate classic, this interpretation retains the soul and fire of the original with Kooper resettling the song in Memphis with some Booker T inspired organ work. Bloomfield stretches each note beyond it's point of no return, he has this array of fluid soulful runs that are incredible, it's a great shame he never received the recognition he deserved. The band drift into unfamiliar territory attempting a cover of Gene Chandler's Man's Temptation, it doesn't quite come off it lacks the drama and sheer pomposity of the original, it doesn't lend itself to a more laid back interpretation. His Holy Modal Majesty is a much more effective setting, meandering and jazz soaked with Kooper playing a very raga influenced moog sounding opening, before switching to his prominent hammond sound. Bloomfield shows the influence of Coltrane in the intensity of his solos. The influence Coltrane had on a younger generation of musicians was enormous, his excursions into a more and free sound gave a lot of musicians the confidence to push through conventional musical boundaries. That is what is great about a song like Holy Modal Majesty, taking a blues style song and incorporating different styles and influences, that growing sense of creativity from the musicians of that era led to amazing albums like this. You also can't underestimate the rhythm section of Harvey Brooks and drummer 'fast' Eddie Hoh who I actually don't know much about, but from the sound of it he was a player heavily steeped in jazz. Really is a return to the Chicago blues that Bloomfield so deeply identified with, his playing is once again passionate with such a pure tone, each scream has an indelible pierce to it. Such a consistent groove is starting to take shape on this album, but fate once again intervenes and takes the album in another direction.

After the first day's session Bloomfield battling chronic insomnia and a growing heroin addiction hightailed back home to San Francisco. Kooper on short notice was able to enlist the services of another musician looking for his next project, the former Buffalo Springfield singer/guitarist Stephen Stills. The music takes on a different hue, a solid West Coast groove side two opens with a cover of Bob Dylan's It Takes a Lot To Laugh, It Takes a Train To Cry, it sounds a little like Moby Grape jangling guitars and tight vocals. Stills picking is dexterous with a slight country feel, and pounding fuzz layered in the background. Donovan's Season of The Witch starts with a pounding drum intro and some wah wah work from Stills, Kooper floats gently across the song. Still retaining that air of darkness and suspense the band still find an opportunity to stretch the song, Stills with some scratchy guitar and a more prominent focus on Kooper and some horns that I think were added on to the mix at the end, the horns for me are unnecessary. You Don't Love Me is pure psychedelia with the drums sounding cavernous with a strong echo, it has a Jimi Hendrix feel with that focus on echo. Harvey's Tune which closes the album sounds like it could have been written for a noir thriller, atmospheric and laid back.

The significance of this album is how it captured Mike Bloomfield at his best, it showcased is pure tone and it seemed to capture him in a setting where he was relaxed and comfortable, no grandiose expectations or pressures, just the pure joy of playing the blues.

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