I can put myself in the late 1960’s and remember being a pre-teen looking at the cover of Projections by The Blues Project. I stared at bassist/flautist Andy Kulberg - the guy in the front - and thought; as a Jewish kid, that’s probably about as cool as I could ever hope to look. The corduroy jacket and matching pants. The double-collared shirt, flowered tie and tousled hair - oh man this guy looked hip. In fact they all looked cool standing on Haight Street in San Francisco - Al Kooper wearing a military surplus jacket, Danny Kalb with his flowered shirt and early rock and roll combover - they looked like they were waiting for history to come over and tap them on the shoulder: “Excuse me gentlemen, are you prepared to make a singular, great album and then essentially disappear from history, leaving a few half-baked reunions, but really just this one, era-defining masterpiece and then gone to the sands of time?” Surely their answer would have been “No! We are going to be huge, with hit after hit and a gigantic fan base.” They would have been wrong, because The Blues Project did make a couple more albums with revolving line-ups, but Projections remains the album they are defined by, and with good reason.
Released in 1966 and produced by the great Tom Wilson (Dylan, Zappa, Simon & Garfunkel), Projections is way ahead of its time, encompassing several genres of music: pop, blues, jazz, all with instrumental chops and performing prowess that few of their peers matched. The Blues Project were both crafty songwriters and arrangers, offering up smart pop confections like their take on Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me,” or “Cheryl’s Going Home” and “Fly Away,” but they also excelled at taking blues numbers and stretching them out, like “Caress Me Baby” or their masterful take on Muddy Waters’ “Two Trains Running,” which at eleven and a half minutes is a real late night classic, winding through memorable guitar and keyboard improvisations and climaxing with a classic train wreck of sound. It is a great example of a slow build, which required a listening patience that many pop fans in this era didn’t possess. I certainly credit “Two Trains Running” equally with Fairport Convention’s “A Sailor’s Tale” or The Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star” for expanding my own musical horizons and helping me understand forms that expanded beyond standard pop conventions. This led me ultimately to jazz, classical, and a larger understanding of music and its possibilities. Projections also has a couple of anomalous compositions that further opened my eyes. Both “Steve’s Song” and “Flute Thing” take the popular music form to even stranger places by dispensing with vocals and creating something entirely more contemplative. Before I really started to understand jazz, “Flute Thing,” with its repetitive and hypnotic melody circling around Kooper’s smart keyboard parts, served as my rudimentary introduction to the genre. It was eye-opening and intellectually liberating to hear young musicians unafraid to step outside the rules of AM radio.
There are only a handful of records I can point to that changed the way I think about music, but Projections is surely one of them. In spite of the fact that The Beatles were using more sophisticated song structures with lots of fancy chords, and Dylan was expressing very elevated sentiments in his lyrics, The Blues Project were also briefly successful at filling the dancefloors of psychedelic ballrooms with extended groovy tunes. There is a simple joy in the making of and equally in the listening to this music which reminds me of why I originally fell for it in the first place. It’s really well-played, exuberant music that thrills me to this day. Only Al Kooper went on to have a tremendously successful career after The Blues Project, but all of the performances on this album are first rate and show all the musicians to be top-notch. Projections is a definitive 1960’s rock album in that its feet are firmly planted in Chicago blues and the top 10 charts while its head is deep in the cosmos.
- Paul Epstein