Eclectic is a word only recently in vogue, but Memphis music has always been eclectic, a melding of the musical and social forces that converge on the town from all sides. Memphis’ top-of-the-delta position has always made it a repository for some of the best of the Mississippi Delta styles, but the folk ballad filtered in early from Eastern Tennessee and Appalachia. These two white and black traditions, as well as the influence of gospel music, can be heard in the earliest Memphis recordings by people like Furry Lewis and the Memphis Jug Band, already stirred together and blended with the savvy of the city.
Booker T. Jones and company are the Memphis group today; they represent the very best of the Memphis musical heritage. Small wonder that their linear purity and their funky directness have been the model for hundreds of like combos, and not a few Top of the Pops groups. We were beginning to have a few doubts during the period of their pop-tune albums; for a while they were tackling some mighty unlikely material, transmuting most of it into something of their own, but always leaving the listener with the feeling of a little too much sugar in his tea. The new Booker T. album is a particularly happy event because it represents the total absorption of the pop influence (which was after all a direct result of the group’s increasing involvement with turning out hit records for other artists and building up the company) along with a rediscovery of the beautiful smoldering soul sound that made “Green Onions” and the other early M.G.s’ hits such blockbusters (in turn, a direct result of the group’s decision to forget being a back-up group and get out on the road as a band). In other words, another beautiful eclectic Memphis move.
All the tunes on Melting Pot are M.G.s’ originals. A couple of them are over eight minutes, which indicates a welcome loosening-up from hit-singles strictures. The title tune is one of the extended pieces and it’s just great from start to finish with some incredible textural control from Booker’s wide-open organ and burning guitar. Here and elsewhere, Cropper’s mixing gives the music a wide and perfectly-controlled dynamic range, though of course the group demonstrates just as much dynamic precision in live performances. What is important here is Cropper’s mastery of the studio; his only mistake is not featuring his own parts more. His solos on the album are each models of his not-a-note-wasted style, and his rhythm playing is, as usual, flawless. With Booker T. (literally) pulling out the stops on the organ, and Duck Dunn and Al Jackson at their solid best, the album couldn’t miss.
There are many highlights, like fantastic guitar-piano interplay on the mellow-down “Back Home,” and the “Dock-of-the-Bay”-like “Hi Ride.” “Sunny Monday” is particularly exciting, for it contains within its 4:35 just about every ingredient in the Memphis Group’s music, and a few new areas as well, from hard, hard rock to mellow strings to contrapuntal, intertwining guitars and organ in classical style. On “Kinda Easy Like” and “L.A. Jazz Song” the group employs voices in unison with some of the organ lines, treading perilously close to Muzak on the former tune and coming up with something really original on the latter.
Altogether, as an album, it works really well, with the group’s customary taste and precision balanced against a new looseness and a return to earlier, funky playing patterns. That’s more than enough to make it the best Booker T. album in some time, the Memphis Gas of the Year, and a Major Rock Event for everyone.