Harmolodics Redux: James Blood Ulmer’s Greatest Moment Recaptured From Sludge Blues


Remember harmolodics? You do if you were paying attention in the early ’80s. Arcane as a theory, as a style it was sublime. Ornette Coleman’s playful alternative to fusion took free jazz and funk as its starting points rather than modal and progressive rock and treated dissonance and rhythm as if they were the same thing. Though harmolodics has never gone away, it’s never really taken hold, either. How could it, with Coleman playing hide-and-seek and acolyte James “Blood” Ulmer letting record producers reshape him into a sludgy blues mumbler, Jimi Hendrix with a middle-age spread? But things are looking up—reuniting him with violinist Charles Burnham and drummer Warren Benbow, Back in Time (whose title invites being read either way) is the new year’s first A plus, Ulmer’s friskiest since the 1983 Columbia LP from which the trio derives its name. Swimming in reverb, “Happy Time” is simultaneously a hoedown and a raga, full of dark mewlings but light on its feet. The folkloric element is strong and so are the echoes of early rock and r&b—on “Water Tree,” shave-and-a-haircut meets turkey-in-the-straw—and as a bonus, Ulmer sings very little. No one has ever anticipated his guitar jabs and feints better than the straitlaced Burnham. As for Benbow— well, Ornette once said that jazz works best when it sounds like the drummer is playing with everybody else, and rock works best when it sounds like everybody else is following the drummer. Harmolodics splits the difference, he said—and hearing Benbow levitate while holding down the bottom, I think I finally get it.

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