James Blood Ulmer

Harmolodic Guitar with Strings

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Harmolodic guitarist James Blood Ulmer extends his own musical vocabulary by using a string quartet to feature his first notated harmolodic compositions. This is not a jazz or classical string quartet but a harmolodic string quartet. Briefly, the system developed by Ornette Coleman and later extended by Ulmer reveals the possibilities for all members of an ensemble to play with equal weight; there is no tonal, melodic, or rhythmic hierarchy. These compositions work that way -- the string quartet doesn't merely back Ulmer. There are five compositions on the disc: three of them are written in movements, and another is a complete reconstruction of Tales of Captain Black. It's the long multi-movement pieces that are the most interesting, such as "Arena" in six sections. All 12 notes of the scale are open to Ulmer at any one time because all of his strings are tuned to one note -- harmolodic E. As the quartet is scored, the harmolodics call for the quartet to respond in a series of diatonic intervals inside a melodic framework that is tonally based and fully operational as it sifts through the various tempo and meter changes. Ulmer's interaction with the strings is as a fifth member, entering on cue, slipping chords through the harmony, diatonic modes, and intervals. His style is trademark -- he sounds like no one else in his knotty, chunk-and-funk phrasing, but it is so restrained here, so beautifully parsed out. Musically, the dynamic goes from solemn to processional to dramatic movement to ethereal shimmering bliss. On "Page One" a Scriabin phrase from his first string quartet is inverted to provide the opening theme. As the strings play through it, finding a new note at the beginning of each sequence to begin an interval, Ulmer enters haltingly, playing single notes, space between them, and the strings. In the next movement a progression is written that moves through all 12 tones as he chords with them reverse harmolodic counterpoint. The effect is chilling. Throughout the disc there are surprises and long passages of breathtaking beauty. Ulmer's sound and his approach to notational composition are in line with the most inventive of modern composers. His methodology and musical system may be different and uninterested in academic squabbling about harmony and rhythm, but that's ok -- he learned a long time ago that if you don't like the way something works musically all you have to do is make up your own musical system. The European academes have nothing on the soulful, sophisticated musicality presented here.

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