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Beyond the Blues: A Critical Look at 'East-West'

By David Dann

East-West, Butterfield Blues Band,
Elektra 7315-2

East-West Live, Butterfield Blues Band,
Winner 447

I first encountered the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in 1969 when I began listening to Boston's “underground” FM station, WBCN. Free-form commercial radio at its finest, WBCN served up an eclectic mix of folk, rock, gospel and blues, and afforded a young high school student the opportunity to hear the wealth of American music hidden behind the cacophony of Top 40 broadcasting. I had just moved with my family to the area and was searching for something to listen to, and there was plenty to hear on WBCN. The Butterfield band – and especially its guitarist, Mike Bloomfield – caught my ear. They played edgy, tough music. Exciting music. Music called “blues."

I learned that they were from Chicago and that they took inspiration older black musicians who lived there. Musicians like Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and Muddy Waters. I soon learned about their music, too. But Butterfield remained a favorite.

I was in college when I bought the Butterfield Blues Band’s second release, “East-West.” It was astonishing. There was nothing to compare with “Work Song” and the title track, the tunes that formed the essence of “East-West.” The music seemed like jazz to me, or like something beyond jazz because it was created with electric instruments. I listened again and again – especially to “East-West."

Many years later, with the release of live versions of “East-West” in 1996 by Winner Records, I started listening again. Over time I became curious about the structure of piece. How did it fit together? Were there recognizable melodies? Was “East-West” simply a pyrotechnic display, or was it more?

I decided I would look into these questions by giving a close listen to all the versions of “East-West.” By comparing the live versions and the studio take, I eventually discerned a logic and coherence behind the virtuosity, and came to understand the broader historic importance of “East-West’s” many innovations. These are the results of those investigations.

First, though, a little background.

An experiment in fusion

“East-West” is a remarkable oddity. On the one hand, it was a ’60s pop-music hybrid, combining the disparate musical styles of blues, jazz, modal and Eastern musics in a way that appealed to rock listeners. On the other, it was a virtuoso display that challenged the very notion of “popular” and pushed the limits of how pop music was heard.

The piece was recorded by the Butterfield Band in the summer of 1966 – probably in July – and was released on their Elektra recording, “East-West,” in August of that year. It was the creation of the band’s star guitarist, 23-year-old Michael Bloomfield. Inspired in part by the Indian classical music of Ravi Shankar and the modal experiments of John Coltrane, “East-West” used a bass line borrowed from singer Nick Gravenites’ tune, “It’s About Time,” (Gravenites was originally given co-composer credit along with Bloomfield) and was an extended improvisation based on scales rather than chords. It began as a vehicle for Bloomfield’s formidable musical prowess; after a year of performances, it had become something much more.

Butterfield and company were the toast of folk-rock critical circles at the time they were developing “East-West.” Their performance at the Newport Folk Festival in July of 1965 had served notice that something new was happening in folk music, and the release of their debut album on Elektra later that year demonstrated that electric music could offer substance as well as surface. The Butterfield crew brought a new seriousness to popular music, adapting the grown-up musical vernacular of Chicago blues and developing from it an esthetic where performers not only entertained, they played.

“East-West” was arguably the crowning achievement of that early Butterfield musical juggernaut. With Bloomfield at the lead, the tune explored the outer reaches of pop accessibility for the period. One can only imagine what the well-dressed couples at the Whisky A-Go Go in the summer of 1966 must have thought of its pyrotechnical excesses as the band charged ahead.

After Bloomfield left the group in early 1967, the Butterfield aggregation never again played “East-West,” nor did it continue to probe the limits of contemporary music. It didn’t matter, though – history had been made, and pop music, whether it knew it or not, would never be the same.

To understand “East-West’s” structure and development, we will have to parse its various components. A tune that in the studio was a fairly straight-forward series of virtuoso improvisations leading to a collective crescendo turns out to be something more complex upon detailed examination of the three other versions on the Winner label.

These versions come to us from live performances of the Butterfield Blues Band recorded by fans and preserved by the group’s keyboardist, Mark Naftalin. They are of varying quality sound-wise, uneven in their execution and seemingly chaotic in their structure. But a closer look reveals a masterwork in the making, an epic piece filled with virtuosity and risk-taking, an ensemble tour-de-force that has few equals. These recordings capture in their 13-to-30 minutes an ebullient moment in the evolution of American music – one that’s still being felt today.

A word about the choice of “East-West” versions for this review: It takes into account only those recordings which currently are commercially available. There are two other early examples of “East-West” that are known to exist and that periodically circulate among collectors. One was recorded at the Fillmore Auditorium in October 1966 and the other, a “jam” based on the tune, was recorded in performance by Bloomfield and Mark Naftalin with members of the Jefferson Airplane just before Michael left the Butterfield Band. That rare variation on “East-West” doesn’t really qualify as a true rendition of the tune, but the October version, originally issued on a recording called “Droppin’ in with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band,” is the real McCoy. It unfortunately is missing an important portion of the piece’s third section and, for that reason, has been omitted from this discussion. It is also quite difficult for the average listener to find.

To help make sense of the detailed analyses that follow, I’ve included a graphic representation of each version of “East-West” (to see it, click the printable version link). It should make comparisons between the four examples easier and will allow the reader to see how the elements of each piece fit together and evolve over time.

“East-West” 1

The earliest version of “East-West” that we have was recorded at the Whisky A Go Go in Hollywood in the winter of 1966, probably in January. It is nearly 13 minutes in duration and ends somewhat abruptly. The sound quality is only fair, but the balance is good and all solos are easily discerned.

For fans of Michael Bloomfield, this is the live version of the piece that offers the best example of his extraordinary talent. He dominates “East-West” 1 throughout, driving the piece and defining its structure. This raga-influenced tune is clearly his idea. Both Elvin Bishop and Paul Butterfield seem still to be finding their way here.

“East-West” 1 is the only version of the piece that consists of four or more distinct sections, each framed by a crescendo followed by a pause. According to Mark Naftalin, the final portion or portions of “East-West” 1 were unrecorded, so we’re limited to the four that exist. For practical purposes, we’ll label them (1) Blues-rock, (2) Eastern, (3) Melodic and (4) Slow.

The first three of these sections feature Michael Bloomfield; the last section opens with Bloomfield and then has a brief interlude from Elvin Bishop followed by a harmonica solo from Paul Butterfield. The piece is in 4/4 and is structured around a D-minor scale. It does not modulate – there are no chord changes in the conventional sense.

Section (1), the Blues-rock section, is by far the shortest opening portion of any version of “East-West.” It begins with Jerome Arnold’s ostinato bass part accompanied by drummer Billy Davenport’s bossa nova beat. Elvin Bishop plays a repeated D-minor chord pattern emphasizing the second and fourth beats of each measure and establishing the tonal mood. After a bar or two, Michael Bloomfield launches into his solo with a ferocity that lasts until he builds to a brief crescendo ending at 01:57.

The mood changes abruptly in Section (2) as Bloomfield continues to improvise, this time using a modal scale. Bishop backs him with an octaves-based drone, suggesting the tamboura accompaniment of Indian classical music and giving the section its Eastern flavor. Mark Naftalin can be heard reinforcing the drone with single note runs. After less than two minutes, Bloomfield’s solo reaches a crescendo, ending the section at 03:47.

In Section (3), the Melodic segment of the piece, Bloomfield again is the soloist but now with a restrained attack. He starts (3) on an Eastern-sounding G which, after four bars, resolves to the consonance of A. He then spins out airy melodies that stand in stark contrast to the fiery improvisations of the preceding sections. After a few minutes, at 04:28, Bloomfield introduces a four-note phrase that we’ll designate Motive A. This is the figure that introduces the famous 40-bar phrase in the studio version of “East-West,” but here Bloomfield repeats and varies it for a few minutes before moving into wide-open arpeggios using fretted and open strings, broadening the tonal color of the piece. He then builds furiously to a roiling crescendo at 07:26, tracked closely by Naftalin’s electric piano. Bloomfield’s last chord, brimming with overtones and dominated by an open A and D, is allowed to decay for a full 6 seconds.

After an awkward pause, during which some members of the stunned audience begin to hesitantly applaud, Bloomfield starts Section (4), the Slow section, at 07:37. Building on chords for a moment, Bloomfield then does something rarely heard in pop music: he intentionally plays a dissonant passage using minor seconds, starting at 07:57 on what sounds like A over A-flat. He does this not once but three times. The moment is jarring, fleeting and revolutionary, and captures the essence of “East-West” as pure creative experimentation. The solo continues with Bloomfield playing two-note chorded phrases and arpeggios that lead up to a false crescendo at 09:46. He then returns to the comping pattern of Section (1) and settles into the background.

The rhythm section vamps until Elvin Bishop enters at 10:08, accompanied by Butterfield on maracas. Bishop’s Gibson sounds thin after Bloomfield’s roaring Les Paul and he has turned the reverb way up on his amp, giving his solo a ghostly, far-away sound. His contribution lasts only 14 bars, and while it has a melodic beauty and coherence, it’s clear that Bishop is still finding his way in the esthetic of “East-West.”

Butterfield, on the other hand, is never at a loss. The most musically mature of the group’s soloists, his sound was fully formed even on the earliest Butterfield Band recordings from 1964. He enters at 10:34, announcing his presence with a robust D held for 6 bars. He then plays a blues solo in his best Big Walter-inflected style, full of runs and swoops, sounding as if he expects the 12-bar turn-around at any moment. Bloomfield accompanies with D-minor chords, at first accenting the third beat of every other measure, and then switching to every other measure’s downbeat.

And then, at 12:31, the recording ends rather anti-climactically with the band sounding a final D, given an odd sonority by Butterfield’s major-sounding harp chord clashing with the minor chords of the guitars. As Naftalin has remarked, the remainder of “East-West” 1 went unrecorded, so we’ll never know how this early version of the piece was concluded.

"East-West” 2

The second version of “East-West” comes from the spring of 1966 and was recorded at Poor Richard’s during a visit home to Chicago by Butterfield and company. It clocks in at about sixteen minutes, has acceptable sound quality and is the first complete version of the piece. This performance precedes the Elektra recording of “East-West” by just a few months and is the live version that most resembles the studio take in terms of overall structure. Interestingly, it was recorded by Dan Erlewine, a Chicago guitarist who would later be the source for Bloomfield’s second Les Paul guitar, the legendary 1959 sunburst model.
"East-West’s” original structure – one consisting of five or more sections – has been tightened here. East-West” 2 now has only three parts: Blues-rock, Eastern and Melodic. The Slow and other portions of the tune have been jettisoned in favor of an expanded third section.

Section (1), the Blues-rock portion, now opens with a solo from Elvin Bishop while Bloomfield accompanies using a couple pick-up notes and octaves to accent the second and fourth beats of each measure. Arnold and Davenport again vamp on the bossa rhythm. The 4/4 tempo is slightly slower than it will be in the upcoming studio recording, but Bishop is far more confident than he was a few months earlier. He improvises in D for a full three minutes, developing themes and playing bright chordal clusters. Butterfield interjects harmonica accents here and there, participating actively now in building the musical tension. At 03:00 to 03:04, he echoes Bishop’s staccato riffs with uncanny precision – one can hear how hard he’s listening.

After Bishop concludes his solo and starts pounding out a D-chord accompaniment on the second beat of each measure, Butterfield offers a brief harmonica solo starting at 03:17. He opens again with a sustained note, this time a B, the sixth note of the D scale. He improvises in earnest for slightly over 30 seconds and then moves the band into its first crescendo break at 04:03.

Without missing a beat, Bloomfield kicks off Section (2), the Eastern section, with a flurry of modal runs. Bishop picks up Bloomfield’s earlier accompaniment pattern, playing unisons or octaves instead of chords, while Naftalin shadows Bloomfield’s sorties with single-note runs and clusters. At about 06:40, as Bloomfield builds toward the piece’s second crescendo, Naftalin plays a series of two-note chords in 3/4-time, foreshadowing the intriguing rhythmic complexities to come in “East-West” 3. Almost without pause, Bloomfield weaves line after line until he builds to an intense 14-bar crescendo ending at 07:28. Nine of those fourteen bars feature a cluster that has as its top note a D which is two octaves above middle-C, the second highest fretable note on Bloomfield’s ‘54 Les Paul.

Spontaneous gasps and applause ripple through the audience as the band pauses and Bloomfield moves on to the Melodic portion of “East West” 2, Section (3). The shear volume of the performance is evident by the amplifier hum clearly heard here during the opening minutes of the section. Photographic evidence indicates that the Butterfield Band had been outfitted with Fender amps by the spring of 1966, the front-line players favoring that formidable blues workhorse, the Twin Reverb. With Bloomfield using two of these for himself, it’s not hard to imagine that the crescendo breaks in “East-West” might have produced not only a release of musical tension for a club audience, but a moment of physical relief too.

Michael Bloomfield opens the Melodic section with a three-note phrase that forms the basis for much of the improvisation that follows. It’s a variant on Motive A, heard initially in Section (3) of “East-West” 1, and consists of D-E-F#. With that, he outlines the major-scale tonality of the section. Naftalin subtly shadows Bloomfield’s every melodic turn, giving Section (3) a depth it otherwise might have lacked. His contribution to “East-West” is often overlooked in favor of the piece’s more flamboyant soloists, but Naftalin’s musical sensitivity and intuition are clearly evident here. Butterfield is all ears too, peppering Bloomfield’s lines with brief phrases that are sometimes more felt than heard.

Bloomfield plays single- and double-note lines, creating a jazz feel for several minutes until he reintroduces Motive A at 09:09. He then moves on to a new theme at 09:44, one which will be heard again in the studio version of “East-West” and one that arguably becomes the piece’s musical culmination in “East-West” 3. Motive B, as we’ll call it, is, like Motive A, based on three notes – typically F#-G-A, but with the A repeated in triplet fashion. Bloomfield introduces it, playing in what sounds like thirds, with Naftalin accompanying. At 10:40 or so, he sounds briefly like a steel pan player (!) as he continues to spin out lovely variations on B. Naftalin and Butterfield adroitly accent his phrases, creating a true ensemble feel – the players clearly know each other’s music. Bloomfield returns to Motive B at 12:09, restating it again in a series of variations before bringing in a third figure, Motive C. This phrase introduces a new element in Section (3): a guitar duet with Elvin Bishop.

Throughout the Melodic section, Bishop has remained on the sidelines, letting the other members of the band support Bloomfield. Now he emerges at 13:02 playing a counterpoint to Bloomfield’s melodic line. Their duet is the first example of the sort of interchange that would later be refined by the Allman Brothers’ Duane Allman and Dickey Betts and, to some degree, the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. Michael and Elvin do an intricate pas-de-deux until 14:28 when the band comes in on Motive D, a rhythmic figure that sets up the final crescendo. Bloomfield drifts into modal territory as the rest of the band builds around Motive D’s repeated rhythm, both Bishop and Butterfield interjecting phrases of their own.

When the crescendo kicks in, it lasts for a dozen bars before coming to a resounding halt at 15:52. Oddly, the recording ends before the band can sound the final, imminent D-chord. Though it is heard in the studio version and in “East-West” 3, it appears to have been edited out here. We do have the cries of delight from the audience, however, before the quick fade.

Continued on page 2

Page 1 Page 2 Printable version with graphic

© 2008 David Dann

Michael Bloomfield Discography & Performance History








Printable version

A selection of remembrances of Michael Bloomfield from contributors to this site

A detailed look at the studio and live versions of the Butterfield Blues Band's "East-West"

An interview with producer Norman Dayron by Ralph Heibutzki

A check list of currently available recordings by Michael Bloomfield

© 2007 David Dann

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