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James Blood Ulmer is widely regarded as one of modern jazz’s most distinctive guitarists, but his heroic ascension owes not just to his deft technique but also to his synthesis of gospel, blues, rock, funk, and free jazz. Like his mentor, saxophonist Ornette Coleman, Ulmer is a stylist who uses the blues as the primary source for his aesthetic. The two also share a gift for assimilating such disparate elements as Middle Eastern droning and country twanging into a bold, unique sound that’s at once folksy and futuristic, accessible and formidable.
On “What Is,” the opening song from Ulmer’s latest album, Forbidden Blues, his jangly guitar skitters through a labyrinth devised by bassist Calvin Jones and drummer Calvin Weston with such agility and poise that he recalls Coleman’s fanciful early flights in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The harmolodic bop burnout of “What Is” finds the leader improvising on a melody that ignores conventional bar structure. Ulmer alternates between rapid-fire single notes and chordal strumming, while Jones’ elastic bass gurgles underneath like hot lava. Weston’s backbeats and cross-rhythms stampede like an elephant herd as he furiously propels both Ulmer and Jones. This comparatively simple songspared the cloudy mysticism or extreme free-jazz devices that muffle many of the more ambitious works in Ulmer’s sprawling songbookprovides a splendid testament to his instrumental prowess.
If Ulmer had simply relied on the joyous playing he displays on “What Is,” it’s undeniable that he would by now have ascended to the upper echelon of other post-Hendrix sonic explorers like Eddie Hazel and Bill Frisell. His singing is equally idiosyncratic; he often delivers his plaintive lyrics in a leathery, gargling voice that trembles with a jolting vibrato. Enunciation seems to be an afterthought; Ulmer often swallows his words in a typical Southern fashion, which sometimes makes him sound like a cross between Buckwheat and Alfalfa.
Ulmer came to prominence as a member of Coleman’s fusion band Prime Time. As a solo artist, he cut three influential records for Columbia from 1981 to 1983 that became the template for the Black Rock Coalition: Freelancing, Black Rock, and Odyssey. These records arrived at the pinnacle of the No Wave underground movement and took a holistic approach to the African-American musical diaspora propelled by a reckless sensibility that suggested punk. When journalist Greg Tate, guitarist Vernon Reid, and rock manager Konda Mason formed the Black Rock Coalition in 1985, they named it after Ulmer’s 1982 album.
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Twenty-plus albums later, Ulmer is still in fine fettle on Forbidden Blues. The album doesn’t boast the cacophonous rebel yell of his glorious early-’80s trilogy, but simmers in its afterglow. Compared with his albums with the Music Revelation Ensemble and the Blues Experience, Forbidden Blues is a rather stripped-down, mellow affair that places less emphasis on high-flown aspirations and goes back to the basics that helped define the black rock movement: blues, funk, jazz, and rock. The tactic, surprisingly, works best when those elements are sublimely meshed together in one single stroke, as on “Eviction,” a whimsical Mingus-like mid-tempo blues. Ulmer picks a delightful melody that prowls like a panther against Jones’ casual walking bass line and Weston’s subdued drumming.
But if Ulmer shares Coleman’s affinity for evoking various genres in one song, he also shares his inability to play blues, funk, and rock straight-faced and convincingly. When he attempts to concentrate heavily on any one of those genres, the result sounds stiff and counterfeit. The title track is ponderous and uninvolved, and despite their forceful deliveries, “Do You Wanna” and “High Yellow” are but plodding funk excursions at their ickiest. The most disastrous moment, however, is the banal, anthem-rock “We Got to Get Together”; its insipid inspirational lyrics and schmaltzy arrangement would be too saccharine even for 1985’s U.S.A. for Africa project.
Not that Ulmer’s more experimental compositions always fare better. Sometimes his sense of cultural irony gets the best of him, as on the quirky Irish reel “Forget Not.” Weston underpins the song with strident military cadence while Ulmer’s guitar riverdances with Charles Burnham’s violin. Although Burnham and Ulmer’s lyrical lines coil together beautifully, “Forget Not” still sounds like crafty ideas in search of a song.
Underneath Forbidden Blues’ erratic programming lies a tight EP that documents some of Ulmer’s most gratifying playing of the decade. Like his previous works, this release pushes the boundaries of black rock while simultaneously illustrating its limitations.
It’s evident that the avant-jazz trio Harriet Tubman applied the principles of Ulmer’s works on its sensational debut, I Am a Man. Guitarist Brandon Ross, bassist Melvin Gibbs, and drummer J.T. Lewis sublimely fuse ricocheting rhythms and screaming guitar blasts with intricate improvisation, and subtly employ sampling and digital devices to create ambient soundscapes that are as wide as a prairie.
The band’s members boast wide-ranging résumés. Ross, who serves as the group’s focal point, is probably best known as vocalist Cassandra Wilson’s music director for her Blue Light ‘Til Dawn and New Moon Daughter tours, and he’s played with a wide variety of musicians ranging from free-jazz violinist Leroy Jenkins to Jewel. Ross creates a rich yet understated timbre, often opting for long, suspended chords and country textures. But he’s also given at times to unleashing volatile outbursts of sonic mayhemblood-curdling screams and cries. Gibbs has played with musicians as varied as Henry Rollins and Defunkt. He plays funky, but not in the conventional slap-bass manner, often more concerned with sound than virtuosity; his big ominous bass skulks around Ross’ serpentine guitar lines while also providing cushions of thick chords. Lewis, the original drummer for Living Colour, drives the ensemble with his sinewy polyrhythms.
Despite the members’ lineage, Harriet Tubman seldom engages in the boorish arena rock or useless avant-garde posturing that often obscures inferior compositions. Sure, there are snippets of artsy interludes on songs like “Take Out” and “Iridescent Shark-Skin Suit,” as well as hardcore jollies on “Hards Dry” and “2 Man Army,” but for the most part, Harriet Tubman exudes a musical sophistication that’s in Knitting Factory’s tradition of cerebral jam sessions, yet not too rigidly defined by that aesthetic. I Am a Man transcends the bulk of Knitting Factory albums because the music is so beautifully orchestrated and executed. On the extended composition “Savannah,” the trio initially dips into some Southern comfort, with Ross pensively stating the melody; his blues-inflected lyricism is shortly interspersed with a scraping sampled riff that evokes the Delta. As Ross’ solo grows more menacing atop Gibbs’ bubbling bass, Lewis pushes the music with muscular drumming.
The group creates an intriguing sense of tension during some of Ross’ more meditative performances. On the smoldering “Where We Stand,” Gibbs’ bass defines the tempo, while Lewis’ frenetic drumming provides more textural coloring than rhythmic thrust for Ross’ introspective melody.
The only drawback to I Am a Man is the sameness of the material. The grooves tend to bleed together beyond a certain point. But the group has upped the ante on the black-rock movement with an enticing debut that’s not nearly as self-conscious as, say, Living Colour. Instead of trying to infuse 360 degrees of blackness in every song, Harriet Tubman simply writes delightful songs. And solid songwriting is what makes rock music endure.CP