In 1983, electric guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer made an album for Columbia, Odyssey, that has been reverberating in the jazz culture ever since. Odyssey was an oddity for a major label in ‘83—a time when Columbia’s major jazz artists were the then-young neo-con Wynton Marsalis and the comeback-flush-but-over Miles Davis. Marsalis/Davis were a two-headed monster of commercial success: an Armani prodigy returning to the tradition atop one neck, and the coolest musician of all time slumming with late-career funk atop the other neck. Marsalis and Davis famously admired each other, famously hated each other, and—mostly—famously sold records. James “Blood” Ulmer, in contrast, was a figure from jazz’s nearly forgotten avant-garde with a primitivist technique. What was he even doing on Columbia?
As is so often the case, it was the fringe character who truly had his pulse on the culture. Despite his incisive Cyndi Lauper cover (“Time After Time”), Miles was done as an artist. And despite his jaw-dropping technique, Wynton didn’t yet have a vision beyond his fondness of ‘60s Blue Note sessions (and, of course, Miles’ old music). On Odyssey, however, Mr. Ulmer had a fully formed vision of his music, and he had found the ideal band with which to express it.
The music of the Odyssey Band (Ulmer now calls it Odyssey the Band) was a canny blend of Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodic style (picked up by Ulmer in Ornette’s electric Prime Time band), delta blues styling, a dash of country picking and folk strumming, and a tablespoon or two of world music spice. In 1983, it seemed almost other-worldly, but it became clear over time that Odyssey‘s relationship to jazz was akin to where the Band and Bob Dylan stood next to rock: it was a very sophisticated form of primitivism, a way to correct the music’s excesses by pointing back to roots and ahead to innovation at the same time.
Though the Knitting Factory released a live recording of Odyssey the Band in 1998, Back in Time is the trio’s first studio effort in a quarter century. In the meantime, Mr. Ulmer played across many record labels and approaches, most recently making a series of highly successful and accomplished “straight” blues albums. But through all his musical travels, Odyssey remained Mr. Ulmer’s touchstone recording—the moment where all his best impulses were most fully realized. The recipe: tuning his guitar to allow for droning bass lines to accompany his picking, strumming, and shard-like improvising; incorporating Charles Burnham’s wah-pedaled and amplified violin in a manner both pastoral and “out”; finding a polyrhythm-oriented jazz drummer who could happily stay home with funk and rock in Warren Benbow; and adding his craggy blues vocals to some of the tracks. As the title implies, Back in Time does not tamper with this formula at all. And the disc’s virtues rise close to level of Odyssey.
The disc opens with Blood intoning a nine-syllable mumble that sets a rhythm for “Last One”. Like much of Ornette’s and Blood’s music, this track has little-to-no harmonic movement, but is still delightfully complex. Burnham and Ulmer play texturally over Benbow’s restatement of the rhythm, then they fall into sudden unison figures that recur amidst a collective solo that feels like a panel discussion on hypnosis. This opener, like so much of Odyssey’s music, is accessible and consonant without feeling constrained by pop structures or commercial expectation. Rather, Ulmer seems to allow this band to go wherever it wants, with the trick being that it wants to go in very persuasive, interesting directions.
“Open Doors” is different: a hunk of off-kilter funk-rock that alternates distorted rawk guitar solos with passages of free jazz counterpoint played by Burnham and Ulmer like they were the descendants of Armstrong and Ory or Coleman and Cherry. “Love Nest” goes the other direction, focusing on Burnham’s violin as an atmospheric lead instrument, sounding almost like a harmonica or organ as it plays long, tied whole notes over Blood’s open chords. “Channel One” is the valley between them: mid-tempo rock that drones over a single chord, but ominously.
Several tunes here are re-recordings of Ulmer classics. “Happy Time” appeared on Freelancing in a less jangly version, and “Woman Coming” is utterly transformed here from its origins on the classic album Tales of Captain Black, emerging as a uptempo romp with equal parts rockabilly and New Orleans roots. Blood’s “Little Red House” is a vintage Ulmer vocal, with the band laying in a groove that is a touch of zydeco and a dash of reggae, Burnham playing call-and-response with the vocal throughout. The other vocal is a straight blues “Let’s Get Married” that weds the Odyssey Band to Blood’s more recent projects in a nice way.
Looking back almost a quarter century, this band finds that many of the avenues suggested by the original Odyssey remain mostly unexplored. But the time may now be right. In 1983, both jazz and other popular American musics were mostly the terrain of technicians who played with speed and precision. Today, we live in more a Bob Dylan world than a Michael Jackson world, and Odyssey the Band seems right on the money. The album closes with “Free for Three”, the loosest and most exploratory track on the album—something that 2006 could use more of, perhaps.
Back in Time is a welcome return, if a reunion not quite as bold as it seemed the first time around.
// Notes from the Road
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