Al Kooper

Black Coffee

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Black Coffee is Al Kooper's first new recording of solo material in more than 30 years. While Kooper, rock music's most infamous polymath, has never been entirely idle (he has continued to sporadically produce, write, arrange, perform, and hustle), he has been living in semi-retirement in Nash Vegas since the 1990s and this is a major re-entry. The good news is that Black Coffee is a heady brew of loose, rootsy rock, soul, and funky R&B. Kooper and "the Funky Faculty" -- drummer Larry Finn, guitarist Bob Doezma, and bassist Tim Stein -- along with some select guests, turn up the inspiration dial to 10 and cut loose with a batch of solidly written originals that accent the gritty, immediate and timeless heart of a popular music that hasn't been so in decades, and a couple of crafty covers. Kooper produced and arranged the set and plays multiple instruments. The opener "My Hands Are Tied" is classically written soul in the Stax/ Volt vein. With a horn section, a trio of backing vocalists, and his B3 carrying the melody, Kooper also plays mandolin on the tune and it sounds like it was meant to be in the mix. He may be adding the first new instrument to the soul canon in decades. His singing voice is in fine shape here as well, turning in a tough, emotive performance underscored by Doerzma's ragged lead work in the break. This is followed by Keb' Mo''s "Am I Wrong," on which Kooper plays everything (and the mandolin is present here as well). This is a gritty, high lonesome blues that drips with emotion and atmosphere. The faux lounge swing of "How Am I Ever Gonna Get Over You," is tainted just a bit because Kooper's voice is not particularly well suited to the tune (think Leon Russell singing Sinatra), but it's a minor complaint and the arrangement is stellar. Longtime compadre Dan Penn co-wrote "Going, Going, Gone," with its slow, deliberate, and humorous look at getting old. Drummer Anton Fig joins him (he plays everything else) on a stomping rock & roll cover of Smokey Robinson's "Get Ready," that underscores the blues in the melody. There's also a smoking live version of "Green Onions," a rare instrumental here. The steamy reggae-meets-R&B mode on Hal Linden's "Got My Ion Hue," is quirky yet utterly gimmick free. And while Kooper's voice may not be ideally right for Lil Armstrong's classic "Just for a Thrill," he pulls it off seamlessly -- and his organ and piano work on the tune are stellar. Another live selection is "Comin' Back in a Cadillac," that goes on for nearly ten minutes with smoking horn and guitar grooves before closing with the soulful ballad "(I Want You To) Tell Me the Truth." Black Coffee is consistent and engaging; it is a better album than anyone had any right to expect. But as iconoclastic and unpredictable as Kooper has been in his nearly 50-year career, expectations themselves are suspect.

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