The Album: James Blood Ulmer: Odyssey (1984)
“Electric guitar” and “free jazz” may not be terms that folks normally pair together but when James Blood Ulmer first began collaborating with jazz giant Ornette Coleman in the mid 1970s, Ulmer found an instant kinship is the heady, improvisational style of Coleman’s harmolodics theory. The influence would shape the beginnings of Ulmer’s solo career later in the decade, culminating, for many, in Odyssey, recorded in 1983 with just Ulmer, drummer Warren Benbow and violinist Charles Burnham. Since then, the album is considered one of Ulmer’s greatest achievements, what longtime New York music critic, Robert Christgau lauded as a “ur-American synthesis that takes in jazz, rock, Delta blues and even country music…you’d be hard-pressed to pin just one style on any of this painfully beautiful stuff.”
Odyssey came to us via music historian and author RJ Smith. He’s already written books on everything from the Los Angeles post-war jazz scene to photographer Robert Frank to an R&B artist named James Brown. He’s currently working on a new biography, this one about Chuck Berry. For RJ, Ulmer’s masterpiece represented a distillation of musical movements all colliding together in early 1980s New York City and where Odyssey‘s opening song felt like an invitation to prayer and mediation.
More on RJ Smith
- Interview between RJ and June Thomas (Slate.com)
- “Tell Us 5 Things About Your Book: Capturing the Elusive Robert Frank” (NY Times)
- “In ‘Rhythm,’ Bhi Bhiman’s Music Isn’t Limited By National Borders” (NPR)
More on Odyssey
- Robert Christgau’s review of Odyssey (and other Ulmer albums of the era)
- 1998 interview between Ulmer and Jason Gross (Furious.com)
Show Tracklisting (all songs from Odyssey unless indicated otherwise):
- Love Dance
- Smothered Soul
- Ornette Coleman Quartet: Live in Roma
- Swing and Things
- Wynton Marsalis: When It’s Sleepytime Down South
- Swing and Things
- Please Tell Her
- Little Red House
- Are You Glad To Be In America
Here is the Spotify playlist of as many songs as we can find there.
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About the show
Hosted by Oliver Wang and Morgan Rhodes, every episode of Heat Rocks invites a special guest to talk about a heat rock – a hot album, a scorching record. These are in-depth conversations about the albums that shape our lives.
Our guests include musicians, writers, and scholars and though we don’t exclusively focus on any one genre, expect to hear about albums from the worlds of soul, hip-hop, funk, jazz, Latin, and more.
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