The trajectory goes roughly like this; start young, play R&B and jazz, dig Wes Montgomery to the point of imitation, get into the free-jazz scene and turn the guitar into a feral animal, move to NYC, play and study Harmolodic Theory with Ornette Coleman, cut a string of crucial records in the early 1980s, continue gigging and making records, become an elder statesman of Harmolodic blues guitar. If you tune all the strings on your guitar to one note it makes everything easy, right? Right.
If you listen to the earliest available James Blood Ulmer recordings, you will hear a guitarist working in standard jazz mode. Pretty straight-ahead stuff with a distinct Wes Montgomery influence, nice jazz guitar. But then something happened, the approach changed, and his playing became something altogether different. It became raw and skittering, with sharp teeth set in slavering jaws that were bared and ready to lock into flesh. It was guitar playing reduced to a primal state, a sort of preternatural blues that fit directly within the free-jazz culture that was nourishing it all along. This change began in the late '60s before he met Ornette Coleman and before he learned the name of the language he was already beginning to speak. The youngblood became then, simply, blood.
Coleman found a natural harmolodic player in Ulmer and the two would work together from the early '70s up until Coleman produced Ulmer's first record under his own name, Tales of Captain Black. Ulmer's next four records, Are You Glad To Be In America?, Freelancing, Black Rock and Odyssey, would be and remain highlights of early-'80s jazz-cum-post-everything à la mode. These records were a perfect blend of psychedelic jazz, funk, rock, and punk performed with a razor-sharp edge and often at blazing tempos. This music was played with a taut aggressiveness, very citified, yet with one eye on the past and all ears running at full bore trying to peek around the corner to see what was coming next. These bands were cooking with gas on high.
The fourth album in this excellent spate of recordings was titled Odyssey and, while no less intense and challenging than its predecessors, it was stripped down to essentials. This record shines a light on Ulmer's country roots. A trio consisting of guitar, violin, and drums Odyssey is an album of Harmolodic hillbilly jazz, a deep country blues record with an extremely modern façade. It manages to sound old and new at once, even now, some 30 years later.
I'll leave it to you to figure out exactly what Harmolodic Theory is and how it functions with music and life in general. As with his guitar playing, Ulmer pares it down to it simplest form when he sums it up: “It’s fair to say that a certain kind of blues is the foundation of the harmolodic thing...If it’s free music, coming from the soul, playing any kind of changes and any number of bars, going somewhere else on a moment’s notice, that kind of blues is really ground zero for harmolodic music.”