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).


Moons shine

Revelation march


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


St Anthony said...

Interesting character, Ulmer - I think he's gone more and more towards a bonafide blues sound, but this is where he comes in, so to speak.
This is firmly in Ornette territory, and none the worse for it - those trademark jaunty motifs, and the sound Coleman's bands were purveying in the '70s. I like Ulmer's sound - he's got that thing, like Ornette, of sounding simultaneously avant garde and incredibly ancient. His playing makes nods to the blues here, so it's not suprising he went back to them.
Unlike most lame attempts at fusion, Ornette's actually works - mainly by actually putting some 'real' jazz and funk and whatever else into the mix. The players here are actually working together for the music, not just empty virtuosity (harmolodic democracy, as you say). Much as I love Miles' work, I have to say I prefer Ornette's. The videos are very interesting - Coleman's stuff here seems much more energetic and disciplined ... to be trite, I guess Ornette wins out because he never peopled his bands with a smattering of white hippies.

I used to like Ulmer's singing voice too, rough and rootsy - I know some of the later albums when he plays more song based structures. There was some good stuff on them.

Rod... said...

Ulmer has gone back to the blues with a vengeance as you say - I like his guitar playing on these tracks though, flowing free... agree about the Miles - much as I like his later stuff, ironically Ornette has him down cold. I know Miles famously put him down - yet when you compare their approaches when Miles frees up onwards through those wild electric sides he did after 'Bitches Brew' - they are not so dissimilar - probably because the musicians were listening to Ornette and co? - as they are always based on rhythm whatever else is going on up top

nige said...

wonderful stuff. I saw Ulmer play in San Fran about 1980 in a punk club and had never seen anything like it. He was the closest I will ever see of Hendrix- Ulmer went crazy jumping off the stage and taking his act through the crowd that went berserk. It got so intense, it got a little scary! He changed my music taste for ever. That Coleman from that period is still undervalued. Great blog -so pleased I found it.

St Anthony said...

I think old Ornette had quite an influence on the punk-funk thing (now there's a fusion I'm in favour of); Ulmer moving around the edges of the punk scene at the start of the '80s ( I suppose that's around the time he signed to Rough Trade), and a few others moving in that direction. Tomas Donker played with a later version of the Contortions, for instance.