Al Kooper is Rock and Roll's silent partner. He's not the face or the name of the business, but take a good look at the books and you'll find his contributions sprinkled generously on each page, outnumbering even the decimal points and "Oh Yeah's." From the composition of "This Diamond Ring" to the organ riff featured so prominently on Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" to Rock's first real horn section in Blood, Sweat, and Tears, Al Kooper deserves a legacy in Rock on par with any of the who's who of the whole lexicon. He discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd for God's sake, and signed the Zombies to Columbia records just long enough for them to create their masterpiece before going the way of the zombie in a George Romero film. Rock and Roll is a fickle business, however, and I know a lot of you are tapping your foot demandingly and asking, "So, what have you done for me lately?" Well, for the first time in thirty years, Al Kooper has graced the Rock and Roll listening world with a solo album, and with the way lately looks today, that's a hell of a lot.
Black Coffee marks Kooper's return to recording original, soulful, material, the last proper solo album in his catalog being 1968's, I Stand Alone. In a way, little has changed. Kooper still plants his musical flag in territory of all sorts, from rock and soul, to jazz, to blues. Rather than be known for any particular style of music, Kooper is clearly content to be known for the overall quality of everything with which he involves himself. He's a musical encyclopedia that reads like a page-turning novel. In addition to handling many of the instruments and most all of the vocals on the disc, Kooper also produced and arranged the entire thing. For any other artist this would smack of showing off, but Kooper gets a pass for having the chops to be able to pull it off. Throughout Black Coffee, his backing group, the Funky Faculty (a terrible name for a talented group), lay down note perfect instrumentation, spanning half a dozen genres and twice as many instruments. They're the musical caffeine to Kooper's bitter croon and satisfying grounds of soul. The guitar and saxophone work particularly well in the mix, as does Kooper's own mandolin, which adds a distinctly down home feel to the recording.
"My Hands are Tied" kicks the album off in great fashion. A Dr. John meets Van Morrison, soulful rock love song, Kooper injects the song with a loose groove that works perfectly towards easing the listener right into the proceedings. Stepping back and looking at the album as the sum of its parts, one would be led to believe that the whole thing comes off a bit scattershot. While the mix of originals, covers, and even a couple of live tracks does lack a bit in cohesiveness, and the album runs quite long, it remains an engaging listen throughout, if you have the time. Sections of the album are devoted to more reflective material, "Am I Wrong", "Keep it to Yourself" and "How My Ever Gonna Get Over You" all limbo under the low part of low key, but are chock full of enough feeling to keep the album true to its title. The covers, while possibly the result of a drunken dart game in a record store, hit the bullseye with comical accuracy. The band breaks down "Get Ready" into a blues workout and gives a traditional telling of Keb Mo's "Am I Wrong." "Got My Ion Hue" is also a highlight. The Kooper original, "Comin' Back In a Cadillac" burns up the end of Black Coffee with an almost ten minute live sweat fest featuring enough horns and guitar to brew another whole pot for the whole gospel revival going on.
Sadly, not nearly enough people will hear Black Coffee because they've never heard of Al Kooper, although they've surely at least seen his name, and have probably heard his handywork if they consider themselves fans of Rock and Roll. Indeed, he's been a part of every aspect of the music business, and that business is all the better for it. Imagine not having the organ riff in "Like A Rolling Stone", or think of what life would be like without the first two Lynyrd Skynyrd albums." How many movie soundtracks and television shows would have been one track light without, "Time of the Season" by the Zombies? In all seriousness, Al Kooper's role in the evolution, education, and continuation of Rock is incalculable, and let's be honest, you don't get soul like his from Pro-Tools. In fact, make that Soul with a capital "Al".