Wednesday, July 19, 2006
Harmolodic Stories... James Blood Ulmer...Tales of Captain Black...
James 'Blood' Ulmer was born in South Carolina, moved to Pittsbugh, Columbus, Ohio and later Detroit early in his career and arrived in New York in 1971 where he eventually encountered Ornette Coleman with whom he played extensively in the coming years (as documented on the video I have chosen below from 1974). His first session as leader in 1979 was produced by the altoist who also played on the date.
This record - Tales of Captain Black' - featured a quartet with Ornette on sax, Jaamaladeen Tacuma on electric bass and Denardo Coleman on drums. And it's a wild ride – a scrawling swagger of a record. This is what jazz-fusion should have sounded like post Miles Davis 'Bitches Brew' and never did (with a few notable exceptions – mainly perpetrated by Miles himself).
The two selections I have chosen are 'Moons shine' and 'Revelation March.' In both, there are high levels of energy maintained all the way through as the lines weave in and out to establish a harmolodic democracy – Tacuma's speedy funk bass timbrally entwining with Ulmer's guitar especially- driven by Denardo Coleman's hyperactive, skittering drums. In his solos Ornette skims across the top, employing his long-used strategies of long stretched notes in tandem with fast flurries that lock suddenly on to the beat. He is recorded slightly back in the mix (as producer this was no doubt intentional – to play down his contribution?) - in contrast to his son's drums that are stompingly up front. Yet his mark is all over the record: for example, all the themes are by Ulmer yet they have an Ornettish flavour to them. Not to downplay Ulmer's contributions – he really is good on his first session as leader, firing off single note lines and savagely strummed chords that crosswire jazz and funk and blues with the aggression of the downtown post-punk scene.
A last thought on Ornette – I have speculated before that his Texas musical heritage played a large part in his conceptions of improvisation at the ensemble level – especially with Prime Time's incorporation of different musics into the harmolodic whole. There is an interesting vertical take to his music which is implicit in his theories as I understand them. My paradigm back in Texas would have been Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys who were massively popular in the late thirties and forties with their unique brand of western swing, a music that embedded simultaneous but different levels of country, blues, jazz, folk and is a reflection of the border state's disparate musical traditions. Ornette's Prime Time bands seem to have a flavour of this eclecticism – without any compromise of power or improvisational strategies – in their dense strata of rhythms, bass lines and guitars that chatter away underneath his alto playing.
James Blood Ulmer
(James Blood Ulmer: guitar; Ornette Coleman: alto saxophone; Jaamaladeen Tacuma: electric bass; Denardo Coleman: drums).
To compare Ornette's electric explorations with the other main father of jazz-rock/fusion – here's some links to videos, one of Ornette's Prime Time band from 1979 plus one with Ulmer interestingly from 1974 and one of Miles' later electric lineups plus an allstar jamboree from Paris in 1991. Also interesting to compare the two Ornette performances – the contrast in rhythm is especially noticeable – Billy Higgins on the earlier track is much more 'jazzy' compared to the the double drum assault with Prime Time of Denardo and Ronald Shannon Jackson...
Ornette Coleman and Prime Time 1979
Ornette Coleman Quartet 1974
Interesting on this because of James Blood Ullmer on guitar
Miles Davis Call it anything
Miles Davis and friends Paris 1991