Early in his New York days James Blood Ulmer played on a session with Larry Young– 'Lawrence of Newark.' The track I present here is another glorious mess from the days when jazz was still coming to grips with amplification and rock influences. Parts of this track remind me strongly of 'Bitches Brew' (on which Young's organ contributed to the overall sound). A horde of drummers are present – bongoes, congas, trap drums, kitchen sinks... Plus a couple of electric pianos thrown into the stew – or more appositely the cous-cous (Young had adopted the Islamic name Khalid Yaseen). Pharoah Sanders is supposed to be in there somewhere as well... You can't hear much of Ulmer – he is strictly a sideman on this date. But the track gives a good snapshot of the post 'Bitches Brew' early seventies after the major upheavals of the sixties/avant garde etc. It ends rather abruptly in my (ahem) copy – apologies...
Young like many another jazz musican, died too early... same old same old....
Let us bring in that other doyen of American free jazz guitar from the same era – Sonny Sharrock. Oddly enough (or not...), this continues the Miles/Ornette dichotomy I mentioned in a previous post. Sharrock played with Miles and his electric guitar, alongside the more heavily featured John McLaughlin, stands in an interesting relationship to Miles developments of his electric muse – in the same way, maybe, that Ulmer stands with Ornette. Sometimes teachers can learn a lot from their pupils... Of course, original fountainheads for both Sharrock and Ulmer were probably that quintessential Sixties mixture of Jimi Hendrix (who influenced Miles as well) and John Coltrane. Put these two together and you can see where so much of this music came from and went to...
Sharrock recorded the album 'Black Woman' with his wife Linda and a selection of the New York avant -garde scene around in 1969. The track given here is 'Peanut' and Milford Graves on drums is especially interesting, alternately floating and rolling the rhythms– a man known more by reputation than extant recordings. Sharrock languidly states the theme then speeds up into fast strummed chords and jagged lines (reminding me, oddly, of Richie Havens over-belting the hell out of an open-tuned guitar). In places it sounds as if he is using some kind of bottle neck way up the neck. Skittering and scrabbling in gay abandon, not especially technically brilliant but possessed of a great fire. As Albert Ayler said: 'It's not about the notes anymore, it's about emotions.' Linda Sharrock's voice (jazz singer: she ain't)– well, I can usually take it or leave it but texturally here it blends to give an unearthly quality that suits the mood of the track – a wordless wailing back in the mix. The pianist Burrell comes in for some glissando-ish ripples and Norris Jones is solid all the way. One of Graves' cymbals sounds like a distant higher-pitched relation of the J. Arthur Rank gong (for older British moviegoers). Sharrock returns for more wild flailing plectrum attack as Linda testifies in the distance. (Some would say that she should have stayed there but it's a nice day and I'm feeling charitable...). An abrupt end...
As mentioned in the last post, James Blood Ulmer came out of r and b/funk and travelled through the jazz world as he expanded his music until his fateful meeting with Ornette Coleman. In latter years he has returned to his roots with, as they say, a vengeance. On the album 'No escape from the Blues,' he recorded the old Richard M Jones number 'Trouble in Mind.' Ulmer has developed into a wonderful blues singer, his low down bass baritone as deep as the Mississippi river. Vernon Reid, who produced, also played guitar and electric sitar (which is buzzing in the back ground on this track). An insistent pattern throughout gives resonances of old-time blues piano. The two guitar lines criss cross in places, one in the front of the mix sounding almost like a harmolodic B.B. King – Ulmer -and Vernon Reid way back in the recording offering a separation in acoustic space as well stylistically. For a simple song, this is quite a dense arrangement - a swirling high organ line and flute-like sound (organ again?) (shades of 'Blonde on Blonde') emerge in places as well as other scattered keyboard obbligatos. The 'Bitches Brew/Prime Time templates crossed and homaged? (Via Ronald Shannon Jackson whom Reid worked with in the harmolodic extravaganza of Decoding Society?) Of course, given modern techniques, these additions don't crash the mix out into the distorted levels found in earlier times such as on the Larry Young track or...
... where much of this started. To end - a track from the seminal 'Bitches Brew' (1969) – 'Spanish Key.' Chopping guitar reminiscent of Steve Cropper over at Stax in Memphis as well as James Brown's rhythm section, driving drums, bass ostinatos, three electric pianos playing tag, Miles flying over it all beautifully. McLaughlin throwing in longer splintered lines as the track progresses. Soprano wailings as cymbals hiss and spit. Deep dark bass clarinet. The recording sound is bursting at the seams with the inter-locking activities and clashing timbres of this band – it must have been hell to mike up, but the raw freshness slaps out at you. Collective improvisation that reflects so much of what had gone before, was happening then – and what was to come... singing the body electric...
One final thought: the extent to which the electric guitar influenced jazz from the sixties onwards is enormous. Beyond the instrument's deployment in whatever purely instrumental context, its timbral qualities and possibilities for higher volume levels were even more important. Listen to many of the keyboard sounds on the Larry Young and the Miles tracks – they sound guitar-like, distorted by overdriven amps and wah wah pedals. Miles of course plugged his trumpet in and added effects to bend its sound even more into wild emulations of the electric fires that were started by Hendrix and continued by Sharrock and Ulmer... the relatively clean sound of earlier post-Charlie Christian jazz guitar had been left in the dust... for a while...
(Larry Young: org, bongos, voc;Charles Magee:tp; Dennis Mourouse:sax; Pharoah Sanders:sax, voc;Cedric Lawson: el-p; Poppy La Boy, Armen Halburian, Jumma Santos:perc; Abdul Shahid, Howard T.King, James Flores:dr;Stacey Edwards,
Umar Abdul Muizz:congas; Don Pate, uni Booth: b;James Ulmer:g;Diedre Johnson:c; Art Gore: el-p, dr; Abdul Hakim:bongos).
Khalid of space
(Sonny Sharrock: electric guitar; Linda Sharrock: vocals; Dave Burrell: piano; bass: Norris Jones; drums: Milford Graves).
James Blood Ulmer
(Personnel for album - James Blood Ulmer:guitars, vocals; Vernon Reid: guitars, electric sitar; Banjo; Leon Grunbaum: keyboards; Charlie Burnham: fiddle, mandolin; David Barnes: harmonica; Mark Peterson: bass; Aurbry Dayle: drums; Queen Ester: vocals; Olu Dara: pocket trumpet).
Trouble in Mind