James Blood Ulmer

Black Rock

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Recorded and issued in 1982, Black Rock was James Blood Ulmer's second Columbia album, a follow-up to the previous year's Free Lancing. This was also Blood's first attempt to take the harmolodic jazz of Ornette Coleman and marry it directly to rock's visceral appearance and funk's in-the-pocket groove. Certainly all his records from Captain Black on displayed this penchant in varying degrees, but all were linked to the deep exploration of harmolodic's scalular heights and unknown territories. Black Rock is an in-your-face amalgam of hard rock and punk funk, full of angular riffs and smokin' rhythms and popped basslines courtesy of a band that included drummers Grant Calvin Weston and Cornell Rochester; rhythm guitarist Ronnie Drayton, who freed Blood up to turn riffs inside out and solo at the same time -- something he does live to this day; bassist Amin Ali; and contributions from Sam Sanders on saxes and flutes and vocals by Irene Datcher on one cut. The disc opens with "Open House," a steaming funked-out jazz tune that at its core is a rock tune. Three riffs, all stacked on top of one another, open the track while Ali pops and slaps his bass with a greasy line that calls both guitars out on the line. Blood' solo is soaring, screaming into the center of the mix before wailing out of control to 12/4 rhythms courtesy of the percussion section. The title track is a funk chant with heavy metal overtones; this is the cut that Living Colour bases their entire aesthetic on. The vocals are a shouted chorus between Blood and Weston, and the keeper of the flame is Ali who goes deep into Bootsy Collins territory for his inspiration; Blood responds with an Eddie Hazel done harmolodic style. Sam Sanders makes his first appearance on "Moon Beam," wailing like a bird on his flute and doubling harmonically on tenor, digging deep in to the latter instrument's lower register for a melody that can climb over a charging bassline by Ali and the two guitars playing doubles playing chord riffs in the body of the tune. Even the Staple Singers, gospel-influenced soul of "Family Affair" works, due largely to the hypnotic riff and Blood's willingness to step from his melody and into a stop-and-start jazz-rock tune. When he solos, it's understated, voicing chords in tandem with Ali's melodic bass creating the harmonic line. Irene Datcher's vocal duet may leave a bit to be desired in the expression range, but the groove in the tune more than compensates. The disc closes with "We Bop," the lone exploration of solely harmolodic territory. Its machine gun melodic line played by Sanders and Blood is a series of accents disguised as arpeggios, though they are all built and center around harmolodic E. In fact, this harmonic series, where one melody crosses another -- there are four in all -- is static until Sanders' solo about two minutes in. Ali and Blood kick right back in, and Blood begins his guitar break in the center of the melody never quite leaving. Only Weston on the drums this time, he slips from one side of the rhythmic line to the other sometimes in one jump. With a flurry of harmonic morphing, the tune ends on a dime. Black Rock is among Blood's strongest records. As tough as Are You Glad to Be in America and the Music Revelation Ensemble's No Wave, yet more accessible than either. This is a fitting introduction to Blood Ulmer's unique, knotty, and truly original guitar and composition style. Black Rock is all funk, rock, jazz, and punk, indivisible and under a one world groove.

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