Oregon Music News: Oregon’s all-genre music magazine since 2009

02/17/2017

James Blood Ulmer: A report from Planet Harmelodic / Portland Jazz Festival

By TOM D'ANTONI // A visit to PDX is rare, this one will be solo. Not to be missed.

All of a sudden, at the end of the 1970's, there he was. He was not a kid, he was in his 40's and his voice could sandpaper wood. What was that he was doing with his guitar? It didn't sound like any others. He had been working and creating with Ornette Coleman who was inventing Harmelodics. Coleman said it was "the use of the physical and the mental of one's own logic made into an expression of sound to bring about the musical sensation of unison executed by a single person or with a group." Applied to the particulars of music, this means that "harmony, melody, speed, rhythm, time and phrases all have equal position in the results that come from the placing and spacing of ideas."

Blood went to bed one night, he told me recently on the phone from his home in New York, and dreamed of something that would help Coleman complete the concept. The next day he went to see Ornette and showed him a unison tuning on his guitar, all the strings tuned to the same note. They all had "equal position in the results."

Bingo. Ironically though, when it came time for Coleman to form his best known Harmelodic band, he used Bern Nix on guitar instead of Ulmer.

He still tunes that way, although not all the time, depending on whether the performance is solo, or Blues, or whatever. He'll be at the Portland Jazz Festival on Sunday, February 19, 3pm, $30 - $40, Winningstad Theatre.

He recorded several groundbreaking albums on his own, and with icons of the era such as David Murray and Arthur Blythe, as well as Ronald Shannon Jackson and two or three with Ornette.

All of a sudden, there he was again, recording a series of BLUES albums. Who'da thought? They were produced by Vernon Reid. Blood told me they were really mostly Reid's work, and he just sang on them. That may or may not be true. Either way, that's just fine. He's from South Carolina and that's Blues cred enough for anyone. As if he needed any extra cred to play anything.

He wants to make a Country album. Really. Why not? I asked if he planned to do any Hank Williams yodelling. He said no. I hope he reconsiders.

He looks inscrutable. He in fact, may be, but on the phone he was direct, thoughtful, uncompromising. Now for the bad news. The Skype recording software failed to record our conversation. Nobody feels worse about that than I do because I've wanted to talk to him for since I sat in the Tin Palace, Studio Rivbea, Rachied Ali's loft and other such temples in New York, plus small venues in Baltimore and Washington in the late 70's and through the 80's. I never missed him. I might not have been able to understand everything he sang, but I internalized it anyway.

Let me apologize for shitty software. But all is not lost, at 1:30 in the ArtBar, I'll be doing a Jazz Conversation with him. I know what to ask and now he knows me, to an exent (enough to tell me to stop by and see him and get a pic together...before he knew about the Jazz Conversation.) He'll be tuned in unison and that voice, like none other, will be there singing and growling in his own special way at 3pm when he performs in the Winningstad Theatre,

Lucky us. And yes, he will be singing "Are You Glad to Be in America." Let's hope he sings the tune, the title of which has become legendary, "Jazz is the Teacher, Funk is the Preacher."

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