The Blues Project: Pioneers of the flute in Jazz Rock
Fifty years ago I was quite literally sweating with the burden of academic endeavour: I was a student in the UK taking my “O” level exams in chemistry and other subjects. Elsewhere in the world there were much more interesting events going on -the Monterey Pop Festival for one. From my teenage perspective, leafy Surrey seemed like a boring and uncool location. I was starting to become very aware of music and realised that the American scene was the happening place. At least it was for awhile, but I won’t digress now. Quite naturally the socio-cultural aspects of the 1967 Monterey festival seemed a lot more interesting than prosaic regurgitations of the Haber Process and Hook’s Law. So just why was this particular performance so notable? Let me explain…
Back in the day, the Monterey Festivals showcased many cutting-edge acts that subsequently become milestones in the development of rock music. Jimi Hendrix, the Mammas and Pappas, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and The Who were just a few of the luminaries that graced the stage at the county fairgrounds site. And then there was The Blues Project. Never heard of them? Well neither had I until about six weeks ago when I chanced upon the above clip on YT. This shameful lacuna of ignorance is particularly unforgivable on my part as (i) I fancy myself as a bit of a rock music historian and (ii) since my youth (1967 as it happens) I’ve been fascinated by the flute as an instrument in pop and rock music. Well sadly The Blues Project are one of the most undeservedly unheard bands of all time. Why? Well, probably because they only lasted a couple of years with some of the band members (notably Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield) jumping ship to achieve recognition elsewhere. But in those two years the band produced the gem in the vid clip above. So what’s the big deal? Well I’ll tell you. Five decades ago, only a few slightly masochistic jazz musicians played flute in the arena of popular music. Usually it was a novelty instrument brought out to make a change from relentless sax solos or to lead saccharine-sweet pop songs. Perhaps the first mainstream pop-prog band that used flute as a frontline instrument was The Moody Blues with Nights in White Satin. However, despite the undoubted appeal of NIWS it can’t, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered jazz-rock-blues fusion. That accolade can be claimed by the mighty Jethro Tull who had their breakout concert until August 1968 but didn’t really achieve wide recognition until 1969. Other woodwind-powered bands, Focus, Quintessence, King Crimson et al. all followed. The point I’m hopefully succeeding in making here is that back in 1967, The Blues Project, featuring the excellent Andy Kulberg, were way ahead of the pack with their use of flute in rock music and should be given appropriate credit. A particularly interesting aspect of the late Mr Kulberg’s playing is the integration of electronics, in this case a directly miced-up flute and an Echoplex tape delay, to produce some wonderful psychedelic effects. Overall a truly virtuoso and ground breaking performance that led the way for many others.
Anyway, watch the vid and enjoy this pioneering band.