AL KOOPER: SUPER SESSION (1968)
1) Albert's Shuffle; 2) Stop; 3) Man's Temptation; 4) His Holy Modal Majesty; 5) Really; 6) It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry; 7) Season Of The Witch; 8) You Don't Love Me; 9) Harvey's Tune.
Known generally as the only album credited to «Bloomfield / Kooper / Stills», but the title is tremendously misleading. The whole thing was supposed to be «Bloomfield / Kooper», a collaborative project to capitalize on the strengths of America's hottest keyboard player, freshly booted out of his own band (Blood, Sweat & Tears), and America's craziest guitarist, freshly booted out of his own band (Electric Flag). Had they managed to properly convert their accumulated hate and frustration into musical output, Super Session might have made them buddies for life and, who knows, America's superhero response to the freshly demised Cream, perhaps?
Unfortunately, this was not to be. Bloomfield, suffering from insomnia and whatever else it is that so many crazy musicians seem to suffer from, split on the second day of the planned session (so much for the supergroup), and Kooper had to bring in a quick replacement to finish the project (we should all sympathize with people who hate to leave things unfinished, and what a paradise life will be). That turned out to be Stephen Stills, a somewhat less incendiary guitarist than Mike, but every bit as technically accomplished — know that if you want to make Stephen Stills rock out, all you have to say is «rock out, Steve!» and that'll do it. (Unless your name is David Crosby, in which case it won't work).
Anyway, the finished, but not perfected product sounds exactly the way it is supposed to sound: ass-kicking and inspired on Side A, just ass-kicking on Side B. The fact that there are very few songs as such should not be surprising: the idea was to get together and jam, making an essentially free-form record. The one song that Al and Mike did have time to cut together, a cover of Curtis Mayfield's 'Man's Temptation', is an excellent rendition, with great vocals and passionate playing from Al. But in order to enjoy it all, tolerance for typical Sixties' jamming is obligatory.
Although, frankly speaking, it is not clear to me how anyone who likes electric guitar at all could possibly dislike Mike Bloomfield's playing. Obviously, he is no Hendrix or Beck, and his playing was never meant to push boundaries, but he was one of the few players of his age who systematically played 12-bar blues with the spirit of a punk-rocker — irreverentially, loudly, dirtily, making the poor guitar scream like a tortured pig instead of sticking to the safe side. And when he did that on that happy day in May 1968, he clearly infected Kooper as well. 'Albert's Shuffle', 'Stop', and 'Really' are fabulous jams, generic on the surface, spiritually shredding on the inside; the gargantuan 'His Holy Modal Majesty' is more questionable, since this is where the two wade out in more adventurous, jazzy territory, and it is not quite clear if this is really a masterful rock answer to the likes of Coltrane and Miles Davis or a sorta lame attempt to mimic their far more accomplished and original achievements (although, personally, I will take Bloomfield's guitar and Kooper's organ over Coltrane's sax any time of day, but these are just my personal sonic preferences).
The Stills side is more discussable; with the inspiration and chemistry sort of dissipated into thin air with Bloomfield's defection, it seems like Kooper decided to compensate with fancy reinventions of the popular repertoire. So they take Dylan's 'It Takes A Lot To Laugh' (which Kooper must have remembered from the days of his and Bloomfield's work on it during the sessions for Highway 61 Revisited) and record it in its original fast version; take Donovan's 'Season Of The Witch' and develop it into a creepy-funky eleven-minute brew; take the old blues standard 'You Don't Love Me' and mutate it into a phased-out bad psychedelic trip; take Harvey Brooks' jazz number 'Harvey's Tune' and... do nothing with it except fade it out by the second minute, the shortest track on the album. (Brooks himself played bass on the album).
At the very least, it's all interesting — and Stills does chug it out nicely on 'Season Of The Witch', in a ragged, chopped style that would soon become the trademark of his live sparring with Young during CSNY live performances ('Down By The River' etc.). Some like to claim that the second side is a huge letdown, and that Bloomfield's departure killed off a burgeoning masterpiece whose importance a nice guy like Stills could never really «get». But most of these people must be dead hero worshippers — the late great Bloomfield was great, but not that great; plus, three or four more jams in the same style would eventually become obnoxious (as the dynamic duo's ensuing live album would clearly demonstrate), so the Stills change of pace was welcome.
Overall, this can be safely counted as the album that finally, after years of session work and one bursting band experiment after another, established Kooper as a solo artist, capable of fully driving his message home regardless of whoever else shared the yoke. And as much as it clearly belongs in its own time, those still-happy spring days of 1968, Super Session is still super after all these years. Thumbs up.
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