Bill Orcutt on James Blood Ulmer – Odyssey


This week I’ve got a two-parter Hidden Gems that focuses on a couple of underground legends. In anticipation of the release of their latest collaboration, Brace Up!, both Bill Orcutt and Chris Corsano have contributed picks to the series. I’m starting here with Orcutt, whose singular guitar style defies all schools of tradition. As such, he gravitates to a guitarist who’d been flouting conventions long before him and it seems fitting that Bill has payed tribute to the great James Blood Ulmer here. Orcutt has built an enviable catalog of works going back to his ’90s work with the seminal Harry Pussy and on through collaborations with Alan Bishop, Michael Morley, Circuit des Yeux and Loren Connors. Check below for how Ulmer’s work came into the life of Orcutt and how Odyssey impacted his own musical journey.

“I first heard James Blood Ulmer as a college freshman in 1980,” recalls Orcutt. “One night I wandered into the record store across the street from my dorm, and they were playing Arthur Blythe’s Lenox Avenue Breakdown which features Ulmer. It had an immediate effect. I was already a huge Hendrix fan and a big Derek Bailey fan, but I didn’t like much in between. Ulmer seemed to combine them both. He played fragmented runs on a big Gibson jazz hollow-body like Bailey, but with the rhythmic feel, vibrato and string bends of Hendrix. He already had a record out as a leader (Tales of Captain Black) on Ornette’s Artist House label but in Florida in the pre-internet era it was difficult to know that it existed, much less buy it. Fortunately the first of his three records for a major label came out the following year in 1981 and I was all over it. Two years later, he released his best album for Columbia, Odyssey.

As to what makes this particular Ulmer release special, he continues, “I don’t know if it’s hidden or not but it’s definitely a gem. It’s a trio recording with drums and violin and is easily the most spacious and open-sounding of his LPs. Recorded in the all-wood, high-ceilinged rooms of the legendary Power Station in NYC, the bass-less, stripped down trio format opens up room for Ulmer to fill with huge-sounding chords from his resonant, unison-tuned Byrdland; it’s the best guitar sound of his career. On most of the album’s eight tracks, the guitar and drums lock into simple rhythmic patterns and Charles Burnham’s wah-wah violin drifts over the top, alternating between drone and ornamentation. The result is considerably less frantic than his earlier records. Whereas prior Ulmer releases seemed to take No Wave funk as a starting point, this record has a more relaxed almost country-blues feel, without ever sounding lazy or resorting to cliche. It’s the perfect mix of the strange and the familiar.”

As usual, I’ve asked how the record has seeped into Orcutt’s own works, to which he adds, “All of Ulmer’s work has had an influence on me as I have tried to find my own path between Hendrix and Bailey. I don’t tune my guitar the same way as Ulmer, but his use of open strings definitely changed my playing and his ability to adapt an idiosyncratic style to popular music forms has been a touchstone. He’s been an inspiration since I was a teenager and still is today.”

Bill’s dead on with the necessity of this album. Its the kind of record that opens up possibilities for many young guitarists and at the same time, its just a damn enjoyable listen. Ulmer may be legend in what remains of the record clerk circuit, but this does feel like an album that could use wider play among the general populace. Drawing a line from Odyssey to Orcutt’s recent work makes sense. Orcutt’s style is similarly hinged on percussive elements that its no wonder that he’s found solace in the gauntlet grace of a player like Chris Corsano. The two have worked together in the past, but Brace Up! stands as a particularly biting example of their particular aural battle and I’d highly recommend wrapping your head around it. Ulmer’s work is still available thanks in part to an ORG 180g reissue from 2014. Its pretty widely available if you poke around through local shops, or you can hit discogs below for some listings (and you should).

Support the artist. Buy it HERE.

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