Picks and Pans Review: Odyssey
James Blood Ulmer
Ulmer gave a New York concert a couple of years ago in which he had so much overamplified musical muscle onstage—brass, reeds, cello, violin, bass, drums, percussion and his own guitar—that the participants appeared to be sawing away soundlessly inside an enormous electrical blizzard. With a guitarist as original as Ulmer, you want to be able to hear what he's doing. Recently, on tour and on Odyssey, he's been working only with violin and drums. It's an ideal format. The intimacy seems to inspire Ulmer to reach back to the blues and R&B of his rural boyhood in St. Matthews, S.C. (pop. 2,496). He's still an unabashed jazz avant-gardist, attacking the strings with dreamlike nonchalance and impetuosity. Yet it would be hard to imagine more giddily infectious picking than he provides in Swing & Things. Election and Church are intriguing metaphors: The pealing, repeating chords of the former suggest, with unexpected optimism, a community heading to the polls; the latter is an incantation, both mystical and physically forceful. Charles Burnham's electrified violin is as perfect a foil for the guitarist as Don Cherry's cornet was 25 years ago for the alto sax of Ulmer's mentor, Ornette Coleman, On three cuts, Ulmer sings. His hoarse baritone has a campfire casualness, but it lacks the capacity for surprise and storytelling of his other instrument.
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