Kooper Reflects on Bloomfield
Bandleader and producer Al Kooper recently compiled a three-CD/one-DVD box set on guitarist Michael Bloomfield (1943–’81). From His Head To His Heart To His Hands (Sony/Legacy) is a career overview of the blues guitarist, with more than a dozen jam-tracks with Kooper on organ, including two tracks and an outtake from their best-selling 1968 album, Super Session.
Kooper has had a long-running, remarkable career as a musician, bandleader, talent scout and album producer in the rock, blues and jazz-rock genres. He’s in the history books for his efforts with Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, The Blues Project, Blood Sweat & Tears and Lynyrd Skynyrd. DownBeat spoke to Kooper about assembling the box set and collaborating with Bloomfield.
DownBeat: What’s your assessment of Bloomfield?
Al Kooper: He was definitely one of the first white guys through at that time [late-1960s] who played extremely black and then influenced a lot of people who had high profiles later. Michael just decided he liked the blues, and he lived in the hot bed of it [Chicago], so he went and heard it all the time … eventually sitting in with the people he learned from [Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Rush, Kokomo Arnold].
DB: Why the box set now? He died in 1981.
AK: I’ve been trying to do it for decades. I finally broke the wall down at Sony.
DB: You brought knowledge of jazz piano and organ to your jams with Bloomfield. Who were you listening to?
AK: Of course Jimmy Smith. Bobby Timmons. Horace Silver. McCoy Tyner. Dave Brubeck. Bobby Banks, a gospel organ player in New York. My parents took me to see live jazz on my 15th birthday, a double bill of the Ray Bryant Trio and Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers. It was pretty amazing. So that started my jazz period. I stopped listening to rock ’n’ roll [around 1960]—it was just beginning to get terrible—and I concentrated on listening to jazz for three or four years. My favorite was Maynard Ferguson’s band from 1960 to 1964. That’s really where [the idea of starting] Blood, Sweat & Tears came from. I loved that Ferguson band. I was like a groupie: Every time they played New York where I lived, I went to see them, and I’d go talk to the musicians [among them, saxophonists Lanny Morgan and Don Menza and pianist Mike Abene] after the show. They all knew me at that point.
DB: The biggest surprise about the new box set is the guitarist’s audition for John Hammond of Columbia Records, which earned him a record deal. I didn’t know a tape of these three songs existed.
AK: I had the only copy of it. I thought they would have it on a file at Sony but they couldn’t find it. I was looking for a better copy. When I began work [in the late 1960s] as a staff producer at Columbia, my office was next door to John Hammond’s, so we became friends. After Super Session came out, he came into my office and he handed me a tape and said, “This is when I first recorded Michael, when I first heard him in 1964. I thought you might enjoy it.” And I really did. I loved that tape.
DB: Super Session’s spontaneous homage to John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner, “His Holy Modal Majesty,” still intrigues for Bloomfield’s guitar and for your unusual electronic keyboard that sounds something like a soprano saxophone.
AK: I just wanted an opportunity to play this instrument I was fooling around with at the time, which was called an Ondioline. There weren’t many of them and I played it unorthodoxly with the heel of my hand because it only played monophonically, one note at a time, the highest note you touched. I learned to play Coltrane scales with the heel of my hand. I had no idea of Michael’s ability to play in that style, and he surprised me in a good way. So in the box set, I edited out a lot of my playing to get his parts because it’s not my face on the cover.
DB: What was special about playing with Bloomfield?
AK: The one thing that made him unique was that up to that point I’d never worked with anyone where I didn’t have to talk to him about the music we were going to play. We both understood what we were doing and we both tried to accentuate each other with our playing. I’d never had that experience before where it was unspoken and you just understood. And that was very special to me. When he passed away, I just kept thinking, Wow! I am so lucky I got to have that experience with somebody. Then later on I had the same thing with [blues guitarist] Jimmy Vivino.