Jazz: When the avant-garde met the surreal

Written By: James McGowan
Published: April 17, 2018 Last modified: April 17, 2018

James Blood Ulmer Odyssey Trio, Ronnie Scott’s, London.

There is, and never has been, one true way in jazz. The evolution of the music through the big band swing era into bop shaped the path of what was to follow. There was Cool school versus hard bop. Or modal versus minimal. Then there was free jazz against everything else.

One man’s enfant terrible is another man’s visionary and saxophonist Ornette Coleman was at the forefront of that insurgency the impact of which came to be regarded as one of the great shifts in the boundaries of expression and improvisation in jazz.

The recent passing of the formidable and uncompromising pianist Cecil Taylor was a reminder of the depth and influence of Ornette’s legacy while a visit from another free jazz pioneer and former Coleman sideman, guitarist James ‘Blood’ Ulmer, earlier this month yet further highlighted the enduring place the alto saxophonist holds on the musical pantheon.

Thirty-five years on from their debut the original Odyssey Trio were reunited at the Frith Street club for a hugely anticipated performance. Red hat on head and sat on the edge of a stool throughout the guitarist from South Carolina began with a psychedelic country blues where swampy squelches met jagged angular attacks. Violinist Charles Burnham’s wah-wah fuelled notes effortlessly swooped through Blood’s phrases: a hypnotic pentatonic melody here, harsh dissonant chord there.

Freeform jazz met Delta blues with Ulmer’s mournful, mumbling vocals which evoked John Lee Hooker. Drummer Warren Benbow’s delicate cymbals and snares zigzagged through the guitarist’s oblique riffs, liquid runs and harmolodic deconstructions. A dazzling guitar violin duet fizzed with atonal twists and mellifluous turns while a superb solo from Burnham conjured vivid abstractions.

Less a collection of songs and more a stream of consciousness the set recalled the spirituality, intensity and the frequencies of drone music from the Indian subcontinent. Ulmer’s presence was almost guru-like, chanting incantations and meditative murmurings. The avant-garde met the surreal.