James "Blood" Ulmer's reputation for being, as one critic put it, "the most original guitarist since Jimi Hendrix" has largely preceded his recordings into the marketplace. Until recently, though, Ulmer had recorded only three albums under his own name. Critical hosannas aside, each of them was issued on an independent label with limited distribution, making them available to a relatively small audience.
Now Ulmer is recording for a major label and his debut album, "Freelancing" (Columbia ARC 37493), will certainly broaden his audience. What's more, the album won't hurt his reputation any, either.
"Freelancing" is a surprisingly faithful summation of the music Ulmer has pursued since first working with Ornette Coleman a decade ago. Back then, the guitarist quickly grasped Coleman's "harmolodic" theory (an unconventional view of how harmony, motion and melody can function together or independently). Ulmer's approach places the emphasis on motion (or rhythm) and melody, incorporates all manner of jazz, rock and funk elements, and is driven by a frequently abrasive, stuttering guitar style.
He may be as original a stylist as Hendrix, but as a guitarist he has little in common with Hendrix's electric flamboyance. Generally, Ulmer favors a sharp, clipped attack with a barbed-wire tone. His playing is frequently linear: Melodies are extended at will; ascending riffs explode into fragmentary notes; spiraling figures collapse into crashing chords or suddenly accelerate in and out of phase with other instruments. While most fusion music attempts to bring disparate elements together as one, Ulmer is content to simply have them coexist in the same framework.
Like Hendrix and Coleman, Ulmer cut his teeth on rhythm and blues. Occasionally his music conjures up an illusory Delta blues strain using a slide-guitar effect, but more often it is the churning eccentricities of funk that keep the adrenalin flowing. Certainly funk represents Ulmer's only hope for commercial success on "Freelancing."
The album opens with the first of four selections featuring the guitarist's regular trio. They range from the frenetic and dissonant "Timeless" to the bright, almost playful "Happy Time." There is a dense texture to these two performances that is basic to the album. Drummer G. Calvin Weston uses the snare drum and the ride cymbal sparingly, preferring the darker, more resonant beat of the bass drum and the hi-hat.
Bassist Amin Ali, on the other hand, is unconstrained. Every so often his figures converge with those played by Ulmer and Weston, and on those occasions the interplay suggests some of Miles Davis' early fusion efforts. More often, though, Ali is out front setting the pace with a beat that can whip up enormous motion or establish a simple loping pulse.
The addition of a rhythm guitarist and three background vocalists turns the trio into a freewheeling funk machine for several numbers. Oddly enough, this is when Ulmer sounds most like Hendrix -- not as a guitarist but as a singer. True, Ronnie Drayton's guitar accents heighten the effect, but Ulmer's exaggerated vocals on "Pleasure Control" come across as three parts Hendrix and one part James Brown. "Where Did All the Girls Come From?" is Ulmer at his most accessible, singing conventional funk, yet dressing it up with a classy, humorous and sexy arrangement.
The remaining three numbers feature the trio with tenor saxophonist David Murray, alto saxophonist Oliver Lake and trumpeter Olu Dara. Prior to recording for Columbia, Ulmer made a record with the same personnel, and the selections here will whet many an appetite for more. Just as the trio sides suggest Davis' influence, these tunes frequently recall Ulmer's work with Arthur Blythe. The most conspicuous example is "High Time" with its strutting horn section. Also impressive is "High Jack," not just for Olu Dara's piercing solo, but for the steaming cauldron of cross-rhythms the trio stirs up.
What's most surprising about "Freelancing" is that Ulmer's music has reached a national audience without being compromised. This is as good an album as any he's produced, and on a purely technical level it's his best yet. In short, the album should satisfy loyal listeners, pique the interest of newcomers, and make meaningful the praise Ulmer has received thus far.
Another musician often compared to Hendrix -- and justifiably so -- is the Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal. Rypdal's swirling, hallucinatory style isn't always put to good use, however. At his best he creates colorful, sinuous layers of sound; other times, especially on his solo efforts, the music is shallow and motionless.
His latest album, "To Be Continued" (ECM-11-1192), teams him up again with drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Miroslav Vitous. Rypdal's tiresome penchant for moody atmospheric textures is evident on the opening track, but Vitous salvages side one with a couple of lovely compositions. The first, "Mountain in the Clouds," comprises a shifting palette of tonal colors featuring Vitous' jaunty acoustic bass. The second, titled "Morning Lake," is more in keeping with Rypdal's beloved tranquility, though it doesn't suffer from the icy stasis he often imposes on his own work. Vitous' acoustic piano, DeJohnette's muffled percussion and Rypdal's needle-nosed guitar lines combine to make haunting music.
Unfortunately the second side is even more inconsistent. The title track picks up where the trio left off on their last outing together: spacy guitar riff squiggles against crashing cymbals for an unusually long nine minutes. Again, Vitous manages to bring a sense of direction to the music with his agitated bass lines on "This Morning." But before long a familiar somnolence creeps back into the music, and the album succumbs to an ethereal drowsiness.