Back in Time – Odyssey Band
Pi Recordings 18
Certain releases end up as endings when they should have been beginnings. James “Blood” Ulmer’s Odyssey, from 1983, is a good example. In those days, Ulmer had a Columbia contract and was among the most celebrated new jazzmen of the time. After a series of jazz/funk outings, Odyssey was a surprise — a new band, without bass and with touches of Irish and Middle Eastern music, perhaps even a bit of country. It was the crowning achievement of Ulmer’s early 80’s hot streak, but it ended up being his final Columbia release, and, whether coincidentally or not, it may go down as his last major record.
Since then, Ulmer has assumed a lower profile and headed in various directions, including a few returns to jazz/funk and some surprisingly conservative blues recitals. It turned out that his Odyssey bandmates, violinist Charles Burnham and drummer Warren Benbrow, were game for a reunion in the late 90’s with a live disc. Now comes another studio effort from the trio, with one repeat from the 1983 release (“Little Red House”) and an optimistic title.
If getting Back In Time was the goal, Ulmer and company have pulled it off quite well. This session could have recorded in 1983; the concept is much the same and the execution is about as vigorous. Burnham was the secret star of the Columbia release, and on this CD he takes more of the spotlight; he gets as much grease, ache and soul out of a violin as most can find in a saxophone. Ulmer himself, aside from the two vocals (“Little Red House” and the cheerily threatening “Let’s Get Married”), is a subtler force, but he makes much of Ornette Coleman’s role as a mentor, and in some conceptual senses he may have bypassed the master. Coleman’s music often stays in the theme/solos/theme form of jazz, and while he speaks against genre boundaries, Ulmer’s Odyssey trio puts a disregard of these boundaries into practice.
While the Odyssey Band does better than expected at going home again, a few nagging reminders surface that it’s not 1983 anymore. The music combines varied elements, but could use more variety in doing so eight of the ten songs, including all of the final six, are in A, and the tonal constancy has a numbing effect after a while. And while Odyssey stops at a concise eight tracks, Back In Time rolls on for ten, including a few overly leisurely numbers which would have ended up as reissue bonuses back in the day. I doubt Ulmer misses Columbia’s impact on his music, but one suspects that a whip-cracking producer might have improved this disc.
Those faults aside, the nice thing about Back In Time is that it turns Odyssey from an ending back into a beginning. Ulmer, Burnham and Benbrow have their own brand of trio music, and if Back In Time recapitulates more than it adds, it demonstrates that the world can still find room for more of the music.