Graded on a Curve:
James Blood Ulmer,
Black Rock

Finally–jazz fusion with balls. Most jazz fusion artists offer you the worst of both worlds; their jazz is anything but top notch, and they can’t rock for shit. Such is not the case with guitarist James Blood Ulmer. Ulmer–who is best known for his barbed wire guitar playing–has collaborated with such free jazz luminaries as Ornette Coleman, Arthur Blythe, David Murray, and Pharaoh Sanders, but he can play the Delta blues with the best of them, leading one music critic to label his music “avant gutbucket.”

And on 1982’s Black Rock he does it all. A few of its numbers are tightly structured forays into instrumental jazz fusion; others mingle his harmolodic jazz with the blues, funk, and R&B, with Ulmer employing his dirt and grit vocals to fill out the sound. In short Black Rock is an eclectic LP with something to offer to Coleman, Hendrix, Funkadelic, and even Zappa fans. Ordinary citizens will love it too.

Black Rock is uncharacteristic of Ulmer’s work insofar as his band is composed of relative unknowns. His previous outing, 1981’s Free Lancing, features a world-class horn section; its predecessor, 1980’s No Wave, boasts both sax legend David Murray and drummer extraordinaire Ronald Shannon Jackson. I suspect Ulmer’s intention on Black Rock was to temper his highly structured (but paradoxically still free) jazz with the passion (and popular music signifiers) of rock, soul, and funk, and it works.

It’s not easy to come up with comparisons to Black Rock. The best I can do is Frank Zappa’s 1969 LP Hot Rats, but Black Rock is infinitely more complex, its arrangements less stiff and more free-wheeling. And unlike Zappa, a cold-blooded and calculating musical lizard who never met an emotion he liked–Ulmer oozes soul. The proof lies in both albums. Hot Rats is brain music; Black Rock comes straight from the heart.

The harmolodics of “Open House”—which sounds like what Hendrix might had done had he lived long enough to follow his instincts—and “More Blood” give Ulmer free rein to show off his guitar chops. The same goes for the explosive “Overnight” (which boasts the flashy drum work of Grant Calvin Weston as well as some great alto saxophone playing by Sam Sanders). “Fun House” is a slowed down demonstration of harmolodics on which Ulmer does a dead on imitation of Hendrix’s trippy vocal stylings (“You can get high if you want to”) while bass player Amin Ali channels Captain Beefheart.

Ulmer growls his way through the Funkadelic funky title track. ”Black Rock music if you feel it” he sings, then “Black Rock music for your dirty bones, lookout!” Add some “Uh!s, a killer rhythm section and one helluva guitar solo and what you have is a song that would make George Clinton’s jaw drop. “There’s some Soul in the house, better turn this mother out!” indeed. “Family Affair” is what its title implies–a tip of the hat to Sly & the Family Stone. Ulmer is joined by Irene Datcher on vocals, and together they offer up a vision of universal soul domesticity. Add to that the fact that Ulmer uncharacteristically stretches out on guitar and “Family Affair” is a tour de force, both moving and musically dumbfounding.

“Love Have Two Faces”also evokes the shade of Hendrix. Lovely ballad for the most part, with Ulmer singing and Datcher joining in on the choruses, it has a twist in the form of a couple of superfunky breakouts during which Ulmer gives shout outs to the power of funk, punk, jazz and rock. And Ulmer also breaks out on guitar, ending the song with a guitar solo that is less part of the song’s intricate structure than standalone tour de force.

“Moonbeam” is the only track on which Ulmer falls short of his exacting jazz rock standards, and the less said about it the better. It might offer fans of more mainstream jazz fusion a chance to dip their toes in the water. But to me it sounds like Ulmer’s slumming, and its only saving graces are Amin Ali’s funky electric bass and Sam Sanders’ tenor saxophone.

Black Rock is the perfect LP for jazz rock fusion fans interested in exploring the sonic possibilities of the form. It may be too challenging for some; unlike, say, the end game Miles Davis, Ulmer has steadfastly declined to take commercial success into calculation when it comes to creating music. But in an ideal world a great jazz guitarist capable of incorporating the blues–to say nothing of soul, rock, and funk–into his music would be 50 times more successful than the likes of Weather Report.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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