Although most of his early stints were with jazz organists like Hank Marr, Larry Young and Big John Patton, guitarist James Blood Ulmer is inextricably linked with pioneering saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Ostensibly the first electric guitarist to apply Coleman’s harmolodics theory to his own music, Ulmer’s debut finds him heavily indebted to the saxophonist. Tales of Captain Black offers Ulmer’s trademark knotted, choked phrasing as a rough-hewn foil to Coleman’s pure, free melodocism, but he hasn’t fully discovered his own voice yet. Revealing, a 1977 session with the great tenor saxophonist George Adams and bassist Cecil McBee that went unreleased until 1990, offers a less cluttered, more effective example of early Ulmer.
The exceptionally fine Are You Glad to Be in America? features Ulmer’s first vocal efforts and reveals a staggering understanding of the roots of jazz, dance music, Eastern polyrhythms and harmolodic textures in a lively sound mix. Without Coleman, Blood works with fabled electric bassist Amin Ali and the stunning sax combo of David Murray (tenor) and Oliver Lake (alto); the music fairly crackles.
No Wave is an experimental album recorded with the Music Revelation Ensemble (Ali, Murray, Lake and Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums). It’s Ulmer’s most inaccessible work and his least focused.
Free Lancing and Black Rock are technical masterpieces, making up in precision what they lack in emotion (as compared to Are You Glad to Be in America? ). Working to expand his audience, Ulmer concentrates more on electric guitar flash, and actual melodies can be discerned from the improvised song structures (improvisation being one of the keys to harmolodics).
Ulmer hit a high-water mark with the brilliant Odyssey. Along with drummer Warren Benbow and violinist Charles Burnham, the album combines Ulmer’s innovative playing, a powerfully sweeping mix of cerebral probing and surging, bluesy expressiveness — a style that prompted many to call him the most important African-American guitarist since Jimi Hendrix — and his natural ease with, and interest in, post-country blues and soul fusions. The instrumentals pack plenty of free-jazz punch, imbuing his Coleman-derived concept with an invigorating accessibility; the vocal pieces gorgeously complement Ulmer’s raggedly soulful singing with a lovely down-home feel. Burnham’s warm electric violin, in particular, delivers a striking adaptation of the black string band tradition to a rich stew of blues, gospel, soul and jazz. In short, Odyssey is Ulmer’s most complete record.
Following a number of European releases (including the live-in-Switzerland Part Time) and Caravan of Dreams, an American live album recorded with Burnham, Benbow and Ali, Ulmer joined forces with bassist/ co-producer Bill Laswell and Ronald Shannon Jackson (plus Nicky Skopelitis and Bernard Fowler) to make another marvelous vocal record. Ulmer always possessed a strong crossover potential, and America — Do You Remember the Love? is a blatant attempt to cash in on it. It contains some of Ulmer’s most measured, resonant singing, but the fiery urgency of his guitar playing is missing in action. Ulmer balanced his late-’80s search for commercial acceptance with several mostly instrumental collaborations — the Phalanx project with George Adams and the revived Music Revelation Ensemble with David Murray — but at best these records are only qualified successes.
In the ’90s, Ulmer mounted a two-pronged attack with uneven results. He continued to veer closer to commercial rock territory and failed both financially and artistically. His more jazz-oriented outings, however, redeemed many of his missteps. Blues Allnight, with second guitarist Ronnie Drayton, drummer Grant Calvin Weston and frequent Ulmer bassist Amin Ali, opts for straight-up rock production and employs cloying synth interjections, weak tunes and the occasional anthemic quality found in beer commercials. It’s quite possibly Ulmer’s worst album. But while Black and Blues was recorded with the same group a year later and goes for much the same over-the-top attack, the performances avoid the chintzy gloss of the previous effort. The effects-heavy guitar playing continues to flirt with mersh-metal sounds, but it’s leavened with an unreconstructed hard funk wallop. Ulmer’s singing exudes a renewed, raw vigor, and the propulsive support of Ali and Weston is impressive.
Blues Preacher, his first domestic major-label outing since the Blue Note record, is another misguided crossover attempt, transporting the old ideas into the ’90s. While nothing matches the putrid excesses of the album’s cringe-inducing closer “Angel” — a sad stab at slow-jam grooving — the record places the emphasis on Blood’s vocals amid unwavering rock and funk rhythms and more faux-metal guitars (courtesy of Drayton). The flat production and dynamic-free performances do nothing to accentuate his rather bland, inexpressive vocalizing.
The title of Harmolodic Guitar With Strings sounds like a self-indulgent recipe for disaster, but the album is one of Ulmer’s finest. Pairing his guitar with a somber string quartet led by violinist John Blake, the mostly instrumental record provides a highly effective framing device for the subtle intricacies of Ulmer’s playing. In contrast to his forced efforts at playing upbeat rock and funk, this record embraces his strikingly dark impulses. Free of a heavy-handed rhythm section, Ulmer’s sophisticated sense of rhythm gets highlighted almost matter-of-factly. Against the sorrowful strings, Ulmer’s powerful playing exudes a frustrated expression; his guitar grapples with inchoate rage, sadness and joy.
Live at Bayerischer Hof is another terrific outing with Ali and drummer Aubrey Dayle. Free of studio trickery, this 1994 Munich club date focuses on Ulmer’s still-present fire, an element all too often smothered on his ’90s group albums. The record mixes old and new tunes; all of them drip with palpable electric urgency. Both Ulmer’s singing and his guitar playing connect; although unlike Odyssey, it paints the same sort of full picture of Ulmer’s abilities.
Elec. Jazz with Murray, Ali and drummer Cornell Rochester is a muscular set of fierce funk-based improvising. More linear and accessible than the Music Revelation Ensemble’s 1980 debut and less indulgent than its eponymous 1988 followup, it’s still largely uninspired. The same is true of the group’s After Dark. The title track, however, foreshadows Harmolodic Guitar With Strings by incorporating a string quartet, which sits rather uncomfortably with the full band.
Much as Ulmer’s more recent solo work has delivered the goods, the MRE’s In the Name of… proves its equal. Recorded with a revolving cast of saxophonists — Arthur Blythe (the alto player with whom Ulmer recorded in the early ’80s), Sam Rivers and Hamiet Bluiett — the improvisations are explosive, and the hornmen, none of whom has played this sort of electric energy music much of late, inject the proceedings with palpable freshness. Many of the tunes situate loping, Ornette-like melodies over a furious rhythmic attack, and Ulmer delivers some of his best straight-up guitar in years.