Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Guitar Soloing: Blood from a Stone

For a brief spell there is the early 1980s, things got a little peculiar with the major record labels in the States. Having over-invested far too much of their product line in disco and glutted the market in the latter half of the prior decade, it was as if they were in a frenzied scramble to diversify after the post-1979 backlash. All those A&R guys, one imagines, scouring an array of clubs and cornering various scenesters, beating all the bushes in order to find out what kind of new music people might actually wanna hear. The end result was -- for a short spate of time, at least --  that some of the major-label rosters got oddly "pluralistic." In some instances, a few artists who would've otherwise never gotten a major contract at any other period in music history suddenly did. As one would expect, they'd get their three-disc run, often putting out albums that were widely and well-reviewed in top-of-the-rack publications, only to slide into obscurity and the discount bins a few years later.

One such artist was South Carolina-born blues/jazz guitarist James 'Blood' Ulmer, who briefly ended up on the Columbia label. Ulmer had come to New York City some years earlier, looking to play in the big metro leagues. He'd already spent the latter half of 1960s gigging around the rustbelt cities of the Midwest as an itinerant member of a number of funk combos, and had also recorded as a sideman with 'Big' John Patton, Larry Young and a number of established jazz musicians. By the time he arrived in New York, it proved to be auspicious timing, as the city's "loft jazz" scene was gearing up its 1970s hotbed furvency. He soon fell under the tutelage of Ornette Coleman, learning to apply the free-jazz pioneer's theories of "harmolodics" to his own repertoire of jazz, blues and funk licks.

Soon enough, he was playing with Ornette, David Murray and a broad array of the downtown avant set. By decade's end, he'd released Tales of Captain Black, and formed -- alongside Murray and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson -- the Music Revelation Ensemble. He also put together his own large ensemble, which wound up playing at the Mudd Club and the Knitting Factory, frequently wedged onto the bill with the likes of James Chance & the Contortions, the Lounge Lizards, or Kid Creole & the Coconuts. It was about this time Rough Trade took note, signing Ulmer and his group for the album Are You Glad To Be In America? It was about this time that Columbia Records came calling.

{     Here it is we've been talking about guitar solos for a week plus, and if the name of Jimi Hendrix has come up, I've somehow managed to skim past it. No matter, and perhaps just as well. We all know how it goes, what with the excessive reverence heaped on Hendrix, and those esteemed mega-titans (Carlos, Clapton, Garcia, Cosey, McLaughlin, whoever & etcetera, amen) who fall within a tight orbit in the grand cosmology of such stuff. But hell, even Ulmer reputedly claimed that modern guitarisms hadn't evolved a single step post-Hendrix -- which probably played no small part in the why & how of Mr. Blood himself seizing upon the whole harmolodics thing and busting his own balls to take his instrument apart, hoping to put it back together in some new, jarringly freakish reconfigurational way.     }

Ulmer would get the standard run of three albums out of his deal with the label. Freelancing (1981) and Black Rock (1982) were each an extension of the sort of material the guitarist had been exploring with his big band in the past few years -- often serving up a dense, multihybrid funk-fusion mutation that at times sounded like On The Corner being fed through a woodchipper. Heady moments were plenty, but it was perhaps of the more scaled-back moments of Freelancing in which Ulmer dazzled the most. At a few points on the album, Ulmer performs in trio mode with bassist Amin Ali and drummer G. Calvin Weston, and it's at those moments that his guitar takes the foreground -- with Ulmer charging up and down the frets and summoning up spikey clusters of notes that erupt like glass-slivered blossoms...

With the release of 1984's Odyssey, however, Ulmer lost a few listeners. The album found him slipping into a largely rhythmic mode throughout many of the tracks, leaving the lead to the improvised soloing of violinist Charles Burnham. While Odyssey was deemed Ulmer's most accessible album, it prompted some to ask, "What happened to the funk?" Fact is, the funk was still there, albeit it a (once again) different mutational form. It was as if the guitarist was starting to take it back to its Delta origins, by way of an extended, meandering sojourn through the Appalachian foothills.

It was a return to roots that Ulmer would follow in the years to come; first narrowed his focus to more standard avant-jazz outings, than narrowing it further to concentrate on playing and signing in a strictly traditional and unadorned Delta blues style. Talking to a magazine many years later, he recalled the days of the late 70s and early 80s when he and his group had played for crowds at the Mudd Club. "There's no way a person could keep playing that way -- the way we did, with that kind of energy -- night after night for very long," he said. "That would've killed us."


W. Kasper said...

Thanks for this - I've never heard JBU before. I do believe I've made a discovery.

Greyhoos said...

Yeah, not sure how much of his stuff might've circulated over your way. Here, the case for a long while was that you'd often see those Columbia LPs in the bins going for just a few bucks each. But I'm not sure if that's still been the case in recent years.


fuck yeah

the playing on "jazz is the teacher, funk is the preacher" is scorching