Booker T. & The M.G.’s – 1971 – Melting Pot
Melting Pot could be the most well-realized of all the albums by Booker T. & The M.G.’s, a smooth and soulful, yet expansive 35 minutes of all originals, the latter in sharp contrast to their exploration of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album material on their preceding album. And the irony was that it was their swan song. Booker T. Jones, in particular, was increasingly unhappy working at Stax/Volt Records, owing his feelings to management and structural changes at the company, and also felt the need to change the group’s formula somewhat. Steve Cropper was playing lots of session work that was keeping him from recording in Memphis as well, and the result was an album recorded mostly in New York City, far away from Stax/Volt and largely built on the group’s (especially Jones‘) best impulses. That said, Melting Pot managed to be a sort of back-to-the-roots effort in the sense that they were back to doing originals, but was also a strikingly more expansive record, with Jones in particular playing with an almost demonic intensity and range, backed ably by Donald “Duck” Dunn‘s rocksteady bass in particular. There were a few other touches, such as the wordless chorus on “Kinda Easy Like” and extended running times, showing the group stretching out on much larger musical canvases.
A1 Melting Pot 8:15
A2 Back Home 4:40
A3 Chicken Pox 3:26
A4 Fuquawi 3:40
B1 Kinda Easy Like 8:43
B2 Hi Ride 2:36
B3 L.A. Jazz Song 4:18
B4 Stormy Monday 4:35
It was the last album of the classic lineup (almost – see below) and they went out, for the most part, in a blaze of glory which probably surprised fans of both their easy-grooving, compact instrumental workouts and all the work they had put in as the funkiest backing band in deep Southern soul. The remarkable achievement was that Booker T. & the MGs let their adventurism run free without burying entirely the foundation that got them there in the first place – the deep, wide, spine-slicing groove of bassist Duck Dunn and drummer Al Jackson Jr.; the spare, effective chords and licks of guitarmeister Steve Cropper (who could also, in fact, take a short solo turn with the best of them and never forgot the blues entirely); and, the magisterially funky keyboard beds and punctuations of Booker T. Jones.
The title cut alone is worth the price of the ticket, a swirling, rolling union of esoteric, dreamy jazz and steady rolling funk whose simplicity and modal melodiousness beats damn near all the ill-begotten “fusion” movement hollow and doesn’t let you out of its allure for its entire eight minute run. (Guitar chauvinists, please note – Cropper’s brief solo turn here could be an object lesson of “less is more”; he nudges out, simply, a spare solo the shredmeisters would have nervous breakdowns trying to nail.) Almost as effective is the equal-length, soul blues workout “Kinda Easy Like“,admittedly a kind of “Green Onions” played inside out but oh, what a groove they cut – and if, as I suspect, it’s unearthed from their earlier days with original bassist Lewie Steinberg, well, maybe Lewie wasn’t Duck Dunn, but he certainly knew how to lay down the blues bottom without obstructing the feeling; and, anyway, you’re too busy enjoying the themes and punctuations Jones and Cropper lay across Steinberg’s bottom and Jackson’s crackling beat to nitpick.
The rest of the album veers between the two ends of the two longer cuts with equivalent grace and power, and by the time it’s over you mourn the breakup of the band and even more so the fact that his still-unsolved murder (in 1976) means that, without Jackson, no regrouping of this exquisite outfit will ever sound quite the same. And you also realise that, of any and everything they did in a long and distinguished career, “Melting Pot” deserved way better than its original weak (on their terms) sales got them. You won’t even mind the one or two legitimately lesser moments, so gripping is the meat of the album.