Guitarist/vocalist James "Blood Ulmer has managed to recreate himself as a bluesman in the last few years, as he convincingly demonstrated on last year's Birthright (Hyena). On that set of unaccompanied solo pieces, Ulmer somehow made his wildly unique unison tuning and Ornette-derived harmolodic sensibility sound like the very essence of the blues. It was the best blues recording in years.
Yet Ulmer is much more than a blues player. His playing on seminal albums like Tales of Captain Black (Artists House, 1979), Black Rock (Columbia, 1982), and especially Odyssey (Columbia, 1983) fused free jazz, Hendrix guitar squeal, Middle Eastern modality and, yes, blues into an organic and altogether novel synthesis. At the time, it seemed undebatably to be the new soundwhich isn't to say the tunes weren't great as well.
Back in Time reunites Ulmer with violinist Charles Burnham and drummer Warren Benbow to re-form the band which recorded Odyssey. Ulmer composed eight of the album's ten tunes, but this is not an Ulmer solo record. Rather, Burnham's electric, often wah-wah-soaked violin and Ulmer's tonality-divorced, earthily brittle guitar take equal roles, playing simultaneous lines around and against each other. There's a remarkable contrast of tones and attack. Burnham's vocal-sounding violin keens and cries in long lines while Ulmer's guitar, covering a huge sonic range in the absence of a bass instrument, crunches and coughs out short phrases and dancing figures that ornament and encircle him. Meanwhile, Benbow provides a bedrock groove that keeps the other two somewhat earthboundhe doesn't play flexible jazz time, and he hits his drums hard.
Seven tunes are instrumentals, allowing for maximum violin/guitar expression, and the songs' structures throughout are rudimentary. They are songs, thoughthese aren't meandering jams. "Open Doors alternates roiling drum rolls, open-sky violin and chicken-scratch guitar with a contrasting arena-thump rock section that culminates in an ecstatic Burnham solo against Benbow's pummelling drum groove and Ulmer's guitar stabs. "Love Nest manifests both loveliness and a deeply unresolved uneasiness as Burnham's mournful violin sighs around Ulmer's minimal blues figures.
"Channel One is built around an Ulmer-Burnham call and response over Benbow's vicious, unchanging kick-kick-snare beat. There's a sense of real atavistic ritual as Burnham's violin seems to beseech the skies, and one almost feels the skies are about to answer back.
Ulmer is singing extremely well these days, and his vocal on "Let's Get Married (the record's only unqualified blues) can produce a real chill, even when he's singing a line like "there won't be no foreplay 'til you sign on the dotted line. "Little Red House (notably altered from the version on Odyssey) contrasts a thumping, march-of-doom stomp with an upstroke-guitar vocal section in which Ulmer's wildly lascivious voice is answered by Burnham's cackling violin.
This unselfconscious blend of genresdid I mention there's country as well?is like nothing else that's come out this year. This is a fearless band with superb chemistry.
Track Listing: Last One; Open Doors; Happy Time; Little Red House; Water Tree; Love Nest; Woman Coming; Channel One; Let's Get Married; Free for Three.
Personnel: Warren Benbow: drums; James "Blood" Ulmer: guitar, vocals; Charles Burnham: violin.