Picks and Pans Review: Black Rock
James Blood Ulmer
The title of this LP is, one hopes, a wry pun aimed at the sable-and-steel CBS Building on 52nd Street in New York City. It's known as "Black Rock" to its inmates and is the home of Columbia Records, which discovered Ulmer, 40, last year and brought him his first wide acclaim. The fact is that, while Ulmer is black, whatever his music is, it's not rock. He describes himself as popular with the "funk-punk" crowd. Yet the purposeful chaos—composed of staccato riffs, random harmonies and irregular rhythms led by his own explosive-implosive guitar phrases—defies definition. Ulmer is a disciple of and former sideman for saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who was so far avant in the '60s that the rest of the garde is still trying to catch up with him. Like Coleman, Ulmer is demanding of audiences. Anyone trying to tap his foot along with, say, Moon Beam on this LP will break an ankle, and it would be easier to whistle a Stravinsky symphony than a few bars of We Bop. Ulmer's duets with his wife, singer and lyricist Irene Datcher, on Family Affair and Love Have Two Faces provide more familiar frameworks for jazz improvisations. But the heart of his music is still the essentially heartless, though far from mindless, sniping and probing at traditional forms. He's an acquired taste, but adventuresome listeners will want to at least sample his work.
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