James Blood Ulmer

Are You Glad to Be in America?

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In 1972, Ornette Coleman took guitarist James Blood Ulmer under his wing and taught Ulmer the principles of harmolodics, a musical system that treats the elements of harmony, rhythm, and melody equally. On Are You Glad to Be in America?, it drives a series of group improvisations that are simultaneously complex and direct. The sound of Are You Glad? is largely defined by its rhythm section: G. Calvin Weston and Ronald Shannon Jackson's propulsive drumming, Amin Ali's kinetic bass, and Ulmer's tightly wound guitar. The two drummers lay down persistent, tense rhythms that establish the album's nervous energy. Leaving little space to explore a conventional groove (to push and pull at the rhythm), Amin aims his bass at the jittery pulse like everyone else. Yet his playing remains rooted in funk and his edgy, spiked tone is a defining texture. The three musicians construct multiple layers around Ulmer, like a more frantic version of the band in Miles Davis' On the Corner (1972). Shards of jazz, rock, funk, and surf guitar are shuffled together and unfurl in frenetic lines. At times the rhythms are too rigid and the results sound like an experiment from which the musicians are trying to break free. At best, the individuals lose themselves in a highly charged dialogue. On "Time Out," they create a chattering mass so dense it's difficult to discern where one instrument ends and another begins. Building steam from the taut structures, the individual voices of harmony, rhythm, and melody are found in dizzying group improvisations.

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