By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
The chimera of fusion obscures Wayne Shorter's accomplishment and dilemma. Fusion isn't the issue--he turns in his boldest playing in years on High Life. My guess is that, like Sonny Rollins, he is one of those painfully honest musicians who can't happily fake an orgasm or traverse old ground. And if the commercial advantages of fusion kindle suspicions of compromise, the complexity of the work ought to defuse them. Jazz is in the business of fusing musics. In a radio interview a few years ago, Shorter offered an exemplary riposte to those who would isolate jazz from the rest of music. I paraphrase loosely from memory: If all the outlets and inlets of a great lake are closed, it will become fetid and die. More often than not fusion is meretricious and deserving of contempt. But that can hardly be said of Shorter, or of James Blood Ulmer, who happened to regroup the Odyssey band at the Knitting Factory the same week Shorter was mining the instrumentation and techniques of Europe and pop. Odyssey subsumes Hendrixian guitar colorations and the indigenous values of native fiddling and trap drumming in a trio that, for all the intimated borrowings (they are legion), sounds like nothing else.
Jimi Hendrix, like the early Ornette Coleman, embodied total freedom as a soloist, indulging long phrases and feedback wailing that cannot be contained in structural grids, supported by bass and drums. Ulmer, like the later (harmolodic) Coleman, plots his moves in tandem with his musicians, elaborating the illusion of freedom through compositional devices. That obvious lineaments of Ulmer's style as singer and guitarist savor of Hendrix can hardly disguise the far more obvious distinctions. Hendrix did not play jazz--or at least not as well as rock: cf., his Wes Montgomery--inspired post--"Star-Spangled Banner" blues at Woodstock--and Ulmer will never be mistaken for a rock guitarist. Odyssey earns its star-spangled crescendos by a studied, incremental buildup of elemental blues riffs enveloped in the sweet burly dissonance of Ulmer's guitar and the siren wail of Charles Burnham's electric violin. Their intertwining, abetted by Warren Benbow's drums, is so quenching that the addition of bass, let alone keyboard or wind instruments, might seem irrelevant at best and intrusive at worst.
Ulmer's 1983 Odyssey (Columbia/Legacy) remains a singular album, a funhouse of reflections that change shapes depending on who's in front of the mirrors. Pointedly excluded from the framework, despite Burnham's academic training, is Europe. Instead we get a native American stew of jazz, blues, country, rock, pop, gospel, an extended riff on "Pop Goes the Weasel"--a solid-state mosaic, never a pastiche, in which musicianly conductivity is amplified by compositional finesse. After 15 years, the band that made Odyssey has adopted the name, with Ulmer so absorbed in the group aesthetic that he is second-billed to Burnham on the new record, Reunion (Knitting Factory Works). The violinist takes more expansive solos than 15 years ago, but they are tethered to Ulmer's guitar-generated themes, and when they twirl in patterns with the drums, as on "Love Dance," they produce something akin to a sophisticated reel. Many of the solos are embellishments on a centered thematic figure, which, when configured in a perpetual downward cast, can hardly fail to recall trademark compositions of Shorter.