The significance of James "Blood Ulmer's Odyssey trio is a bit of backhanded praise. It's a good band for sure, but its value is enhanced by the fact that Ulmer has rarely had standing bands worthy of his potential. He should have had stronger projects and more great records, considering what a great guitarist he is. In 1983, when Odyssey
the record showed up, Ulmer was on the rise. Having released the landmark Tales of Captain Black
in 1978, he signed with Columbia and quickly became a populist advocate of Ornette Coleman's harmolodics.
He quickly, however, turned toward a series of blues/rock projects that dumbed down his talent and vision. When his trio with electric violinist Charles Burnham and drummer Warren Benbow came together again for 1998's Reunion (Live) (taking Odyssey as the group's name), it wasn't wholly a return to form for Ulmer: he'd already released Harmolodic Guitar with Strings and Music Speaks Louder Than Wordsboth on DIWwhich still stand as two of his best efforts. But it did suggest the (re)emergence of the sort of standing band he should have had all along. Had that been the case, the two Odyssey records might not have stood out as such brilliant points in his career.
Eight years later, Odyssey has reunioned again, and happily for the strongest record the group has done yet. Ulmer has grown into his bluesman role, with a seated growl replacing the standing bark, and so the three vocal tracks here (including a fairly surprising love-song-with-prenup) roll alongside the spirited, psychedelic and occasionally Soweto-inflected jams. Burnham's violin is more fiery than ever, using distortion and wah to give the little fiddle the oomph to stand up alongside Ulmer's big, full guitar sound.
Benbow is the odd man out, which is in a way the band's secret weapon. Without a bassist, he's got the back end wide open, and he plays free jazz behind the swirling strings and insistent riffs. It's a combination of elements they've had in place for close to 25 yearsa serious gestation, but they've finally hit it. The album's title is a happy misnomer.
Personnel: James "Blood" Ulmer: guitar, vocals; Charles Burnham: violin; Warren Benbow: drums.