|James "Blood" Ulmer & Maria Schneider : Polar Opposites
I have discovered the two opposing poles of the jazz spectrum. Guitarist-vocalist
James "Blood" Ulmer is at the deeply rowdy, black and blue
end of the line, and composer-orchestra leader Maria Schneider is
at the brilliantly light, well organized, and gracefully arranged
point of the music.
Ulmer, a bear-like man age 62, first recorded with Detroit organ combos,
moved to New York in the late 60s to meet Miles Davis but hooked up
with Ornette Coleman instead, and was prominent in the "avant
gutbucket" crowd of the 1980s led by saxophonists David Murray
and Black Arthur Blythe that mixed funk beats and dissonant, high
energy blowing. On recent records produced by black rock guitarist
Vernon Reid, Blood, who is also known by his Muslim name Damu Mustafa
Abdul Masawwir, sings the songs of the late Mississippi and Chicago
bluesman Howlin' Wolf, although when he grew up in South Carolina
the blues was not heard in his home. His family was church-going,
gospel music people.
Schneider, a honey-blonde woman now 44, was born in Minnesota. She
studied music theory and composition at several American universities
and moved to New York City in 1985 to apprentice with composer-arranger
Gil Evans, Miles Davis' friend from the early days of the cool school.
Since the 90s Schneider has released four recordings of her writings
for big band, played by 20-piece ensembles, like the one she conducted
on Monday nights for several years at Visiones, a small club in Greenwich
Village. Her first three albums were released by Enja, but the latest,
In The Garden, is available only through her website, and was
produced with funds she collected in advance from subscribers to the
Blood Ulmer played at the Jazz Standard club, which prides itself
on a menu of barbeque foods (the cover charge is $25, and meals can
easily cost another $25, with drinks driving the bill yet higher).
He claws at the strings of his guitar, creating scratchy, jagged lines
and a pulsing drone. When he sings, his voice is halfway between a
mutter and a growl. Blood's band-mates were Jamaaladeen Tacuma, another
former Ornette Coleman player who is the most exciting electric bass
player since James Jamerson created the memorable bottom lines for
Motown's 60s hits, and G. Calvin Weston, a super-fast and propulsive
The three rocked powerfully towards the edge of abandon without losing
control. Their instrumental pieces were based on fierce beats and
sketchy tunes. The three men began in close synchronization, then
each jabbed and stabbed at the melodies until they broke open and
flowed, shaking one's body and opening one's mind. The night I heard
them, a trumpeter sat in, sounding unlike any of the current models:
Brash, yes, but willing to go out, and able to stretch over the ebullient
rhythms. Too bad no hip-hop kids came to hear Blood.
"I wish there was more of this fusion jazzI guess it's
old fashioned", the maitre'd sighed to me. "Is anyone younger
playing this kind of thing?" Sure, I said: Check out guitarist
Dave Fiuczynski of the band Screaming Headless Torsos. Vernon Reid,
too. But the maitre'd was right. Gritty rhythmic jazz isn't in the
air as it was 20 years ago. And with so much phony talk in the US
today, we could use a dose of the real thing.
Maria Schneider's music is real, honest, and complex, but accessible
because it is sonically pleasing, even beautiful. She does not write
flashy fanfares or borrow popular themes in order to adorn them. She
is genuinely interested in the voicings she can create with brass
and winds, a rhythm section including electric guitar, and sometimes
an accordion or voice (here, Luciana Souza). Her compositions build
gradually until all the sounds have contributed to a glorious structure.
They seldom break free from the score, though.
That's all right. Not all jazz celebrates spontaneous explosion; some
jazz represents the results of one person's fresh and original thought.
The soloists Schneider employs throughout In The Gardenespecially
pianist Frank Kimbrough, tenor saxophonists Rich Perry and Donny McCaslin,
flugelhornists Ingrid Jensen and Greg Gisbert, and soprano saxist
Charles Pillowhave their moments of expression, but always within
her framework. Her constructions are so interesting we enjoy dwelling
within them, and are grateful that the soloists, as well as the composer-conductor,
give us their tours.
Speaking of tours... As I write, the jazz world in New York awaits
the opening of a new grand palace: The new home of Jazz at Lincoln
Center, which trumpeter Wynton Marsalis calls "the house that
swing built". Located in the building that houses the world headquarters
of Time/Warner Communications, where Central Park and Broadway meet
at Columbus Circle, Jazz at Lincoln Center now boasts five floors
of theaters, media facilities, and offices, with a small opera house,
an amphitheater and a low-ceiling club named after Dizzy Gillespie
and its patron, Coca-Cola.
The early weeks of the 2004-2005 season offer something for almost
every listener, from Marsalis' "Suite for Human Nature"
for jazz orchestra and the Boys Choir of Harlem to the pairing of
guitarist John Scofield and pianist Brad Mehldau. There is a blues
festival featuring Taj Mahal, a Latin jazz orchestra led by Arturo
O'Farrill, and the promise of music from Brasil.
So far, Jazz at Lincoln Center has no gritty jazz-soul-rock in its
plans, nor any truly daring experimentation. Ticket prices range from
$22 to $150, depending on the program and the hall. The new Jazz at
Lincoln Center demands our exploration and deserves our wishes for
success. But it should not be known as the only place where genuine
jazz rings in this town.