Offspring invited a chum over yesterday so I decided to take a walking fast (it was already slightly after one in the afternoon and I hadn’t yet eaten) because I like to give Offsprung her space; Beloved Wife was out rehearsing. I take walking fasts when the schedule and weather permit and these fasts, coupled with eschewing day-glo pseudo-food feedbag toxins, keep me vital. No alcohol. It’s just not good for you, chum. Is the weed? I don’t know enough about that to comment. I can still run up a flight of stairs, to catch a train, with a thirty-pound bag of books (as I do most every school day, c. 7am, with Offsprung) without having a heart attack or even being out of breath and I’ll be 60 in not many weeks at all. I still wake up with strident woodies and I can demonstrate the frug, the swim, the watusi (I included this video to show that cynical-smarmy pop-a-ganda maneuvers are not new) and Le Poulet Funquée (wow) if called upon to do so. That is the soul of Resistance, my friends: Living out the body machine with Joy. If you aren’t there now then get there.
Off I went into the overcast day with its lowering lid and intermittent flurries. I was cozy in Jack Wolfskin and wide-freq-response Pioneer headphones. I’ve got a five-century global village on the mp3 player but some of the stuff, as glorious as it is, only works in certain contexts. The John Dowland stuff only seems to work at home, in the background, while I’m editing photos or tidying up the workspace. Peter Murphy’s Dust only seems to work while I’m walking. Ditto James Blood Ulmer, whose music I would crank until the rafters cracked as its vinyl spun in my bachelor pad in the ’80s while I painted/ fucked/ made pancakes*. I just can’t imagine playing James Blood Ulmer’s music (nor any) while fucking Beloved Wife. But yesterday at twilight as Ulmer’s Music Revelation Ensemble cycled into the play-chamber of my mp3 machine and I was whipped by winter winds I saw the face of G(odd).
Dissonance, like quinine or Cicoria zuccherina, is an acquired taste, but the clanging or the jarring or even the sting, in the right proportion, as determined by the advanced aesthete in white toque or woodgrain recording studio, can be fucking magnifique as you rise above the plane of the Norm in your little agony, tongue-tip or ears shooting sparks. Ulmer seasons lightly and tastefully with dissonance in an interesting extension of the dissident undercurrent within the evolution of jazz: every time the mainstream adopted and metabolized (and de-fanged) a jazz music, angry young Black savants would push it further and weirder until the mainstream caught up again. The game seems to have stopped in the ’50s and ’60s, with Ornette Coleman and Free Jazz unleashing a river of dissonance fully too wide to cross. The mainstream stopped at the banks of that clanging river, shook its fist, hissed, and turned back. So did almost everyone else.
James Blood Ulmer, born in 1940, joined Coleman’s experiment in navigating that river of sparks in the early 1970s . By the late 1980s, Ulmer had learned to encase that wild, illuminating energy in the propulsive housing of funk, creating one of the world’s first Peaceful Siege Engines, flattening castles of boredom and corn wherever they toured it. There were no groupies and everyone just held hands. You will get frowned out of Whole Foods if you describe this music truthfully but it is as wildly, sloppy-playfully masculine as Jon Anderson’s Yes music was po-faced tight and feminine. Both I love. The vast and sparkling crystal vulva of Wondrous Stories vs the oily flaming dick of Playtime: why can’t we all just get along?
(And to complicate things: do you really think Joni’s middle period wasn’t essentially phallic? Joni was a forceful Brotha.)
Unlike the grand Zappa’s largely collageist and attitudinal dissonance (in which high snark is achieved via burlesque and pastiche and wacky juxtaposition), Ulmer’s dissonance is technically literal, in the Coleman tradition: parallel lines between his guitar and David Murray’s, or Arthur Blythe’s, sax, for example, are not quite in sync or in tune… creating what I call Fat Pitch. If some classical music snobs privilege the 443 hz concert pitch over 440 hz and some New Agers swear by 432, James Blood Ulmer covers all of those vibrations and at the same time and it is thrilling. It is Art. It is Henri Rousseau and Wasily Kandinsky trading fours in a liberated brothel.
Playtime was playing as twilight flooded the map I was a dot traversing and night rose lapping the warm bright yellow and mauve windows of fashionable restaurants, in the part of town I stomped through, where guys in their forties steam up the windows as they ogle and chew, decadently cozy, champagne their mouthwash, flirt with themselves in drag, sport imaginary monocles worthy of Dix. In my fast I rejoiced, my guided hunger felt like freedom and poetry and strength. The gold steam like maps on the big windows and the Joycean flan on the suits’ steel teeth and electric bite in the wind and the earth slamming back through my boot-heels made me so glad to be almost fully alive with James Blood Ulmer. Sorry only that Otto Dix wasn’t around to share the headphones. We would chuckle as we kept up the pace straight down the sidewalk and out of the neighborhood, into better darkness, under elevated train tracks and three nearly-snowfalls to go before home.
I can’t find Playtime on YouTube but how about What’s Your Name from After Dark? (It’s only now, that I transcribe the musicians listing, that I see that I knew one of the players back in the 1980s)
- James Blood Ulmer – guitar
- David Murray – tenor saxophone
- Amin Ali – electric bass
- Cornell Rochester – drums
On track 4:
- Ronald Lawrence – viola
- Jason K. Hwang, Rudi Berger – violin
- Michelle Kinney – cello