…The blues had a baby and they named it harmolodic.
Review by Joe Yanosik
Venue: the City Winery (NY) / Date: May 10, 2018
The legendary guitarist James Blood Ulmer performed an amazing solo concert at the City Winery last Thursday night in the West Village. It was a truly intimate show in a brand new cozy upstairs space called the Loft above the Winery. At 78 years old, Ulmer remains an impressively foreboding figure even before he plugs his guitar into his amplifier. Befitting someone of his renown, he’s a big man. Dressed in African garb, and sporting a grey beard, he walked slowly to the stage and immediately began conjuring his signature sounds from his uniquely-tuned Gibson Byrdland. A guitar-playing friend of mine who attended the concert with me noted how difficult it must have been for Ulmer to step on his wah-wah pedal considering the giant boots he was wearing.
I last saw Ulmer in the summer of 2014 when he joined a cavalcade of musicians at an historic concert in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park paying tribute to free jazz icon Ornette Coleman . Coleman attended the show himself and played spectacularly but he was in poor health and passed away exactly one year later. That night, Ulmer performed with Ornette’s son Denardo and his band Vibe which consisted of several members of Ornette’s classic Prime Time Band. Ulmer himself had been the original guitarist of the first Prime Time Band lineup in the early 1970s where he was greatly influenced by Ornette’s musical concepts and style. It was through playing with Ornette that he gained confidence to play his guitar in the free style which Coleman coined as harmolodic. Ornette told him he was a natural harmolodic player and that inspired Ulmer enormously.
Basically, harmolodic music is music not bound by a specific tonal center in which harmony, tempo and melody all have equal importance. Each player in the ensemble can play what they feel as long as they listen carefully to what the other musicians are playing. No other music is so democratic in its theory or so exciting in its practice. It might seem counterintuitive to think of the blues in terms of harmolodic music but in fact, blues has always been the basis for jazz and the country blues guitar players employed their own free style of playing. Coleman himself based his music more on the blues than any other style of music including bebop or avant-garde.
Listening back to Ulmer’s first blues albums (2001’s Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions and 2003’s No Escape From the Blues) one hears fairly straight-ahead Chicago and NYC blues, but Blood is now beyond that. His 2005 album Birthright and his solo gigs feature just his voice and guitar and he’s free to expand on the blues and let his guitar playing enter the stratosphere.
His show Thursday night was LOUD so you could appreciate every touch of the guitar strings, and his 20-odd songs featured blues and funk equally with a gorgeous instrumental that was the highlight of the evening for this writer. Of course, you hear the influences of Jimi Hendrix and Ornette Coleman, but John Lee Hooker, Charley Patton and gospel music was also clearly heard. Standout performances included his classic “Are You Glad to Be in America?”, great cover versions of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” and B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby”, as well as newer originals about Hurricane Katrina (“Katrina”) and his grandfather who was a strong positive force in his life (“Geechee Joe”). But everyone of his performances featured the amazingly intricate sheets of sound he brought forth from his guitar as well as his gravelly vocals.
Blood has had (and continues to have) an amazing career, starting with gospel, doo wop and funk bands before hooking up with Ornette Coleman and then going solo in the late 1970s with his jazz-funk albums before focusing on the blues in the 21st century. His discography is understandably massive, but several highlights distinguish themselves: His 1979 solo album Tales of Captain Black features the only official recording we have of Blood and Coleman playing together and it’s wonderful. Blood’s three albums for Columbia are all essential: Freelancing (1981), Black Rock (1982), and the titanic Odyssey (1983) which remains his peak. Blood formed the Music Revelation Ensemble with David Murray in 1980 and the MRE albums, although many were released in Japan only, are all worth searching for, with No Wave (1980), In the Name Of… (1995), Knights of Power (1996) and Elec. Jazz (1990) especially wonderful examples of free jazz. In 1998, Blood reformed the trio that made the classic Odyssey for two great albums (1998’s Reunion and 2005’s Back in Time) with Reunion slightly preferred as it rocks harder. And don’t miss out on Blood’s superb work on two excellent Arthur Blythe albums – 1979’s Lenox Avenue Breakdown and 1980’s Illusions.
Blood’s appearances are not to be missed so when he’s in town again grab a ticket, visit the merchandise table, meet the legend in person and don’t hesitate to pick up any of the dozens of CDs from his voluminous discography. You’re guaranteed to hear guitar work like no other, and his music continues to shine a light on freedom and democracy that we need more than ever these days.