Saturday, June 14, 2014

Road music: James Blood Ulmer's Music Revelation Ensemble at Vision Festival 19

Photo by Geert Vandepoele

Some sets are built with variety and pacing in mind; others, like the one I caught at Vision Festival last night by James Blood Ulmer's Music Revelation Ensemble, have a quality of infinity about them. Hearing them is like stepping into a river that was flowing long before you arrived, and will continue long after you leave.

I don't know the Ulmer discography well, and Thursday night's Ornette Coleman tribute was the first time I'd ever seen the guitarist live. I've heard bits and pieces of past MRE recordings—the membership has revolved over the years, but drummer Cornell Rochester, who joined Ulmer last night, is a mainstay—but never anything that sounded like what I heard at Vision Festival. The MRE record I know best, No Wave (with Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums), is one of the most jittery, hyperactive and straight-up punk fusion (for lack of a better classifier) albums I've ever heard. That music's greatest strength is its volatility.

Rochester brought quite a bit of flash and bash to last night's set, but the overall mood was serene, trancelike. The M.O. of this band is something like: rhythm section plays a sort of tumbling swing with a droning, static harmony—the Jimmy Garrison / Elvin Jones team seems to be a clear reference point—and Ulmer rides the wave to his heart's content. Pungent, ear-bending chords, spidery lines—deep romantic sonorities with a sort of flamenco-via–Sonny Sharrock feel to them (e.g., the solo around 1:00 here).

I wish I had a more precise theoretical vocabulary to describe the sensation of Ulmer's playing. The closest I can come is that he conjured some sort of blues-jazz raga—deeply earthy but also wildly exotic. Dramatic but not flashy, and so intensely colorful—a kaleidoscope of moods. Themes introduced, obsessed over, played in a kind of self-round that often reminded me of the cyclic, mantric beauty of Ornette's best electric band (no coincidence there; see the opening version of "Sleep Talking" here, played by a group that features both Ulmer and Shannon Jackson). Rhythmically driving but elastic, rubato, infinitely expandable. The set put me in the mind of all my other favorite infinite-feeling, emotionally dialed-in trance musics: I thought specifically of Sandy Bull's haunting "Blend" duet with Billy Higgins, the post-Coltrane-jazz-as-psychedelic-lullaby vibe of "As We Used to Sing" from Sharrock's Ask the Ages and the droning roots fusion of the first Gateway trio album.

In other words, visionary modern American guitar music, spearheaded by players hip to and fluent in advanced jazz but who choose to set aside away flashy soloing in favor of this eternal (modal?) drone. When this kind of thing works well, as it did last night, you get a kind of snowball-effect profundity. Pieces would end, but the next one would always seem to pick up exactly where the prior had left off. Bassist Calvin Jones providing the droning bedrock, Rochester tossing rhythmic Molotov cocktails Ulmer's way, explosive, post–Billy Cobham fills and punctuations (not to mention the occasional gravity blast—a sort of one-handed snare roll that's become commonly used stunt technique in grindcore; I spoke with Rochester after the set, and he admitted to stealing ideas from Slipknot's Joey Jordison, among others) and Ulmer just pressing on unperturbed. Foreground and background, "soloist" and rhythm section not interacting so much as coexisting—the music just rambling, ambling steadily on.

I was sitting with fellow Kansas-born jazz obsessive—as well as exemplary blogger and Sunnyside Records mainstay—Bret Sjerven, and after the first piece ended, I turned to him in ecstatic disbelief. (I hadn't really known what to expect, but this sort of kaleidoscopic trance jazz was a particularly wondrous surprise.) He knew Ulmer and the band well and simply nodded and said, "Yep, it's road music." It was a perfect summation of the MRE's appeal: fire up the engine, hit the highway, turn on cruise control and just embrace the weird haze of a long journey. Monotonous in the macro sense but exhilarating in the micro. A song that rumbles and drones, cycling imperceptibly through vivid hybrid colors—magentas, purple-blues, crimson-into-yellows—coming to rest momentarily but never truly halting or changing direction.

Introducing the band afterward, Ulmer said of Rochester, "He's from North Philly"—apparently offering some explanation for the drummer's particular strain of chops-forward badassery, gloriously flaunted in a midset solo, one of the more punishing, crowd-awing displays of onstage bravura I've seen in a long while—and then added, "I'm still trying to figure out where I'm from." To judge by what I heard during the set, he might have been getting at the idea that one's point of origin is less important than one's wanderlust, willingness to stay on the move, rolling purposefully and steadily toward ecstasy.


P.S. Bret has kindly offered to help me get acquainted with the Ulmer discography, specifically the MRE albums. Would appreciate any additional tips, since this is a new obsession for me. (I've already purchased In the Name Of…, and I can't wait to spend good time with it.) Fine 2003 footage of the current MRE lineup—with guest Pharoah Sanders—is here.


AGM said...

I enjoyed Ulmer's playing and his musical conception generally, but I thought the drummer got tiresome after a while, with his bang-away approach, while the bassist was almost too supportive of Ulmer, a blinkered approach to his role. Would have been nice if Ulmer's partners were more inventive and open-ended. Blood had to carry the performance mostly on his own account, and I felt he ran out of steam before the set ended. But I still would not have missed him.

belyin said...

My favorite Blood Ulmer gigs have been his power trio with drummer Grant Calvin Weston and bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma (both from N. Philly!) The music is "Heavy" in all the best groovy hippy-era meanings of the word–soul, gravitas, meaning, etc.–and it transcends all the possible genre labels that might try to contain it. It's James Blood Ulmer music! I'm not sure this group has recorded even though they have played together off and on for years.

My favorite lp is Odyssey on Columbia, another trio date with violinist Charles Burnham and drummer Warren Benbow. This group did a revival tour and issued a cd, but the original is the way to go for me. (Available and cheap on lp, but hard to find and expensive on cd!?!) Call me perverse, but I also like his Bill Laswell (over?) produced lp for Blue Note: America–Do You Remember the Love? despite it's near univseral condemnation among the cognoscenti. In a better world, perhaps this would have been pop music? And his much asked question "Are You Glad to Be in America?" still resonates.

Sean S said...

I saw Ulmer touring for Odyssey in 1985 with Marion Brown as an opener. The Ulmer trio was amazing, such a full sound! Would love to see him again in any musical context, the man is one of the great geniuses of the electric guitar.