Back In Time
Pi Records 018

By Ken Waxman

Hero to those romantics who see him as the embodiment of what could have happened if a series of Black rockers, from Jimi Hendrix to Prince had turned to improvised music, guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer has had a checkered recording and performing career.

Championed by Ornette Coleman in the 1970s and described as adapting the alto saxophonist’s harmolodics concepts to the guitar, most of his work over the past quarter century has been in a more simplistic blues-funk idiom. That’s no surprise since Ulmer apprenticed in organ combs like Hank Marr’s before associations with jazzers like Coleman, drummer Rashied Ali and tenor saxophonist David Murray, whose music itself has undergone a similar simplification during that period.

Odyssey, Ulmer’s 1983 trio record is considered one of his best and BACK IN TIME is the group’s reunion CD after a seven-year lay-off. Has the band returned to form? Probably. Is it a good Ulmer CD? Possibly. How does it stack up as jazz-improv? About as well as any other band with a heavy-handed percussionist and funk guitarist.

In truth, Odyssey’s dynamic isn’t as downright one-dimensional as the funk trio Ulmer led with electric bassist Amin Ali and drummer Calvin Weston. But drummer Warren Benbow, whose résumé boasts work with popsters such as Whitney Houston, LL Cool J, and Mary J. Blige, along with jazzers like pianist Larry Willis and singer Betty Carter seems to have taken the rock ethos to heart. There seems to be no beat he doesn’t want to pummel into the ground, nor no rhythm he can’t overemphasize. “Woman Coming” even has a midpoint drum solo that features him flexing every part of his large kit, as if he was a Heavy Metal drummer.

Playing both lead and rhythm, the guitarist sometimes distills enough brawny strength to convert some tunes to hypnotic foot-tappers. But Ulmer is also never far from his effects pedal and is more enamored with zooms, flanges, and downward-stroked, amp-expanded bent notes than delicate finger picking or single string story telling. Narratives are reserved to songs with words such as “Let’s Get Married” and the band’s “hit”, “Little Red House”.

As a singer, Ulmer is no Bobby “Blue” Bland or even Hendrix. If anything his mush-mouthed recitations are closer to country bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell. “Little Red House” has a simple – or is it simplistic – enough blues lyric, but “Let’s Get Married” is a POMO puzzler. It seems as if the protagonist doesn’t want to make love to his woman – who may be underage – until she signs a pre-nup. Praiseworthy enough sentiments, they don’t exactly make for dramatic tension. Ulmer does play some sharp, droning John Lee Hooker-vamps however.

Benbow’s rock-like back beat isn’t much help here and elsewhere, with most of the CD’s musical restraint resting on the four strings of violinist Charles Burnham. A former member of the String Trio of New York, who was worked with more enlightened musicians such as percussionist Susie Ibarra, and composer/saxophonist Henry Threadgrill, Burnham is no stylist like Billy Bang or Leroy Jenkins. His fiddle is frequently amplified one notch higher than it should be as well. But his dancing sul ponticello arpeggios provide a needed counter balance to the others. Spiccato, he has no trouble participating in call-and-response vamps with the guitar’s jagged phrases.

Oddly enough, although some tunes take on a vague ProgRockJazz feel with Ulmer’s zooming flanges and Burnham’s Jean Luc Ponty-style shrieks, the fiddler seems to have his heart in the country. Commenting musically on the others two’s strategies or pumping out frenzied glissandi, the emphasis is towards hillbilly fiddling, not country-pop or Western Swing, but more elemental lines with bent notes that stretch back from Roy Acuff to the Black string band tradition.

BACK IN TIME may be welcomed by committed Odyssey and Ulmer fans. Others may feel that the band’s time has passed.

Track Listing: 1. Lat One 2. Open Doors 3. Happy Time 4. Little Red House 5. Water Tree 6. Love Nest 7. Woman Coming 8. Channel One 9. Let’s Get Married 10. Free for Three

Personnel: James “Blood” Ulmer (guitar and vocals); Charles Burnham (violin); Warren Benbow (drums)