January 22, 2011

Playlist Week of 1-22-11


* Musica Florea (Stryncl): Schloss Eggenberg, Graz, Austria 9-01-08 (FM CDR)
* Julian Bream: Popular Classics for Spanish Guitar (RCA-Victor CD)
* Poulenc: Sacred & Secular Choral Works (Groupe Vocal de France/Aldis) (EMI Classics 2CD)
* Poulenc: Works for Piano (Parkin) (d.1) (Chandos 3CD)
* Ornette Coleman: Beauty Is A Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (d.1-4) (Rhino 6CD)
* Andrew Hill: BBC Gateway Studios, Kingston, London, England 4-29-00 (FM CDR)
* Andrew Hill Sextet: Saalfelden Jazz Festival, Austria 8-24-01 (FM CDR)
* Sun Ra: Live in Paris at The “Gibus” (Atlantic—France/Comet/Universe CD)
* Sun Ra: “The Universe Sent Me”: The Lost Reel Collection, Vol.5 (selections) (Transparency CD)
* Sun Ra: “The Road To Destiny”: The Lost Reel Collection, Vol.6 (Transparency CD)
* Sun Ra: Concert for Comet Kohoutek (ESP-Disk’ CD)
* Sun Ra: “Treasure Hunt” (mix CDR)
* World Saxophone Quartet: Live at Brooklyn Academy of Music (Black Saint LP)
* Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble: The Moment’s Energy (ECM CD)
* Anthony Braxton & Gerry Hemingway: Old Dogs (2007) (d.1) (Mode/Avant 4CD)
* Henry Threadgill: This Brings Us To, Vol.2 (Pi CD)
* Myra Melford’s Be Bread: The Image of Your Body (CryptoGramophone CD)
* Music Revelation Ensemble: No Wave (Moers CD)
* Music Revelation Ensemble: Music Revelation Ensemble (DIW—Japan CD)
* Music Revelation Ensemble: Elec. Jazz (DIW—Japan CD)
* Music Revelation Ensemble: After Dark (DIW—Japan CD)
* James Blood Ulmer: Freelancing (Columbia LP)
* James Blood Ulmer: Black Rock (Columbia LP)
* The Music Never Stopped: Roots of The Grateful Dead (Shanachie CD)
* Grateful Dead: Buckeye Lake Music Center, Hebron, OH 6-11-93 (3CDR)‡
* Grateful Dead: Freedom Hall, Louisville, KY 6-15-93 (SBD 3CDR)
* The Band: Rock of Ages (Capitol/MSFL SACD)
* Little Feat: Waiting For Columbus (Warner Bros./MFSL 2LP)
* Tom Waits: Akron, OH 8-13-06 (FM CDR)
* Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians: Fegmania! (Yep Rock CD)
* U2: The Unforgettable Fire (Deluxe Edition) (Island 2CD)†/(‡)
* Echo & The Bunnymen: Porcupine (Sire LP)
* New Order: Low Life (Deluxe Edition) (d.1) (Island 2CD)†/‡
* Cocteau Twins: Lullabies to Violane (d.1) (selections) (4AD 4CD)†/‡
* Spiritualized: “Feel So Sad” (Dedicated CDEP)
* Spiritualized: “Run/I Want You” (Dedicated CDEP)
* Guided By Voices: Suitcase 3: Strike Out Or Go Ahead (d.1-2) (GBV, Inc. 4CD)
* Robert Pollard: Space City Kicks (GBV, Inc. LP)
* Radiohead: In/Rainbows (webcast 12-31-07) (DAB CDR)



Could someone please tell me why James Blood Ulmer’s first two albums on Columbia Records have never, ever been reissued on CD? It hardly matters now, I guess, since the major labels have made themselves irrelevant, but it also serves as an object lesson in how far they’ve fallen.

Ulmer came up through John Patton’s lip-smacking, chicken-shack organ groups and later worked with Ornette Coleman to invent harmolodic funk, retuning his guitar along the way. He also sang authentically bent soul/blues numbers with a scary authority and wrote quirky but captivating compositions perfect for intensely grooving group improvisation. Some folks at Columbia apparently thought they could turn him into a star and, in 1980, offered him a three-album deal. Ulmer accepted and set about making the best records of his career, all of which were respectfully reviewed at the time and widely distributed across the land. So why are Freelancing (1981) and Black Rock (1982) still out of print? What happened?

I don’t know. But I’ll tell you this: those two records were hugely influential on me and the rest of the band back in the day. We covered “Hijack” and “Moon Beam” with respectful, if over-eager enthusiasm and I consciously modeled my own guitar histrionics on Ulmer’s jittery, spattered articulation. I also loved the way he could easily move around from the most abstract free jazz to raunchy disco-funk to sultry, soulful love ballads to splintery post-bebop swing to hard rocking blues and beyond—sometimes all within the same song—and sound as natural as the day. This kind of pan-stylistic approach has always been my musical holy grail and Ulmer has always epitomized for me the positive postmodernist. Genre is no longer relevant as critical marker, only another tool in the toolbox.

He also embraced the high-tech studio technology available to him courtesy of Columbia’s generous advance, adding thoughtful overdubs and electronic effects to produce a big, polished sound suitable for a major label. I swear: these records are perfect! He even pulls off the salacious sex-god thing on “Where Did All The Girls Come From” on Freelancing, following up with gooey love songs like, “Family Affair” and “Love Have Two Faces” on the even more densely produced Black Rock (duetting with Irene Datcher). In another context, all this might be embarrassing, but somehow he makes it work. It certainly helps having Amin Ali and Grant Calvin Weston in the rhythm section, pumping out a deliriously propulsive, intricately detailed groove that never quits. But it is Ulmer's gravelly vocals and craggy guitar that carries the day on these songs. He really could have been a big star, in an alternate universe.

Columbia dropped Ulmer after his most successful record, Odyssey, came out in 1983. A dark and moody album with an unusual trio of Ulmer on guitar and vocals, Warren Benbow on drums and Charles Burnham on violin, it received the usual accolades but failed to sell in sufficient numbers to satisfy the bean-counters at Columbia and quickly went out of print, along with the rest of his catalog. Interestingly, all these LPs are still fairly easy to find in the used bins, most of them stamped “For Promotion Only: Ownership Reserved By CBS.” No doubt this was done ex post facto in order to dispose of product at below wholesale and thereby deny Ulmer any royalties and accounting he would otherwise be entitled to. Ah well, such is the way of the music business.

Even though Ulmer’s career has continued with varied success in the ensuing years, Freelancing and Black Rock have remained perennially unavailable, some of the very few records I can think of which have never—ever—been re-mastered or reissued during the CD boom of the last two decades. It’s almost as if the label has some sort of grudge against Ulmer for not delivering on the promise of free-funk riches or some other petty transgression (curiously, Odyssey was issued on CD in 1996—but it, too, is, of course, long out of print). The fact that original LPs can still be found cheaply indicates that the label way overestimated the commercial potential of Ulmer’s brand of “fusion” (already by 1982 a vague. pejorative term) and took a serious bath on the venture. This stuff could never escape the jazz ghetto and become something…else. Only a fringe audience would ever really dig it and the rest found it easy to ignore. It’s not like Columbia pushed Black Rock on radio and television. Who knows, it could have sparked a harmolodic revolution! Alas, that was not what happened.

My beat-up vinyl copies still sound pretty darn good and I enjoyed cranking ‘em up this evening. But I still think they deserve a spot (however marginal) in the digital pantheon. Guess I’ll just have to make my own CDR so can transfer it to the iPod…but, oh, what a hassle! Come on, Columbia/Sony/Universal—whoever—this is some of the best music your hideous corporate monster ever spit forth! Let it be heard!


Anonymous said...

Both 'Free Lancing' and 'Black Rock' came out on CD twice in Japan in the early 90s - once in jewel boxes and once in mini-LP sleeves. Used copies show up on eBay and Discogs with some regularity. But Sony not issuing them domestically is, admittedly, inexcusable.

Now if someone/anyone would only issue 'Glad To Be In America'on CD with the original Rough Trade mix and cover art.... I'm just never gonna be comfortable with that DIW remix.

christopher said...

Possibly the best concert I've ever seen: James Blood Ulmer at the Bamboo Club in Toronto. It was a very small venue (I believe it closed in '02), and I was fortunate enough to have a seat right up at the stage, which was nothing more than a six-inch platform. This was the trio with Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Calvin Weston. I swear I could practically reach out and touch the guitar. Truly remarkable performance, really explosive and electric. I remember shaking my head in disbelief for a week after.

Rodger Coleman said...

@Anonymous: yes, well, they care about this stuff in Japan. As for "Are You Glad To Be in America" I have the Artists House LP. I assume that is the original mix??

@Christopher: I saw that band at Johnny D's in Somerville back in like 1989--yes, it was mindblowingly great! I think I still I have the tape I made somewhere around here...

Anonymous said...

re; Are You Glad?

The original Rough Trade LP was mixed by Blood & Mayo Thompson (of The Red Krayola/Red Crayola fame). There were also French, Italian and Japanese issued with their oen unique artwork. The Artists House reissue came with a different cover, different sequence and remixed by John Snyder. The DIW CD release was remixed yet again, this time by Kazunori Sugiyama. A new cover (featuring an anachronistic 1995 photo of Blood) was used, but the original Rough Trade running order was restored. Then they put it out yet again later with the same content, but a seventh cover design.


Sam said...

Those are both great albums. I'll never understand the bean-counting rationale for their not being pout out on domestic CDs,. But then again, I'll never understand how they got released in the first place!

Here's my lists for last week:

Playlist 2011-01-24

*Bach: Goldberg Variations (Glenn Gould, 1955)
*Art Ensemble: 1990-07-14 Wiesen, Austria (CDR)
*Art Ensemble of Chicago with Cecil Taylor: Thelonious Sphere Monk: Dreaming of the Masters Vol. 2
*Art Ensemble of Chicago: 1991-03-23 Boston (CDR)
*Art Ensemble of Chicago with Don Pullen: 1991-06-01 Frankfurt, Germany
*Bix Beiderbecke: Bix Restored Volume 1: 1924-1927 (disc 3)
*Taylor Ho Bynum's Spidermonkey Strings: 2008-03-30 Roulette, NYC (CDR)
*Ornette Coleman Sextet: 1978-07-04 Berlin (CDR)
*Duke Ellington: The Complete 1932-1940 Brunswick, Columbia and Master Recordings of Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra (discs 2, 5)
*Joelle Leandre + Mephista: 2010-06-25 The Stone, NYC
*New Loft: 2010-12-15 "Intended Color" (wav)
*New Loft: 2011-01-12: "Breath Belief"/"Clothes All" (wav)
*Sun Ra and His Mythic Science Arkestra: The Paris Tapes
*Sun Ra: The Universe Sent Me (Lost Reel Collection, vol. 5: 1973-09-08)
*Cecil Taylor Jazz Unit: The Early Unit 1962
*Blackman: Blackman (CDR compilation)
*Chemical Brothers: Further
*Fela: Roforofo Fight
*Grateful Dead: 1973-10-19 Oklahoma City "Dark Star > Mind Left Body Jam > Morning Dew"
*Grateful Dead: 1973-11-11 Winterland (CDR) "Dark Star > Mind Left Body Jam"
*Robert Pollard: Crickets: The Best of The Fading Captain Series
*Yes: Tales From Topographic Oceans (side 1)

Reading log 2011-01-24

*Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights (transl. Malcolm C. Lyons) Vol. 1 (started)
*Canniff, Milton. Terry & the Pirates Color Sundays Vol. 9 1943 (started)
*Canniff, Milton. Terry & the Pirates Color Sundays Vol. 8 1942 (started/finished)
*Giddins, Gary. Warning Shadows (started)
*James, P.D. Children of Men (started)
*Moore, Steven. The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 (finished)