Music Revelation Ensemble
Music Revelation Ensemble
James “Blood” Ulmer may well be the only constant in the Music Revelation Ensemble, or MRE. For over 20 years, the self-professed blues preacher has remained the sole permanent member of this ever-shifting group, known as much for mixing up melodics as personnel. This is not to say the pursuit is a sketchy one: Since its 1980 Moers Music release No Wave, featuring Ulmer on guitar, David Murray on tenor saxophone, Amin Ali on electric bass, and Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums, MRE has been fueling the free jazz torch lit by pioneer and Ulmer mentor Ornette Coleman so adeptly that All Music Guide’s Chris Kelsey was moved to call the group “[o]ne of the first and best free jazz/funk bands.”
One of the most innovative electric guitarists since Jimi Hendrix, Ulmer is known for pioneering “harmolodics,” defined by Richard Cook in the Penguin Guide to Jazz, as quoted in materials from Ulmer’s publicist, as “a theory which dispenses with the normal hierarchy of ‘lead’ and ‘rhythm’ instruments, allowing free harmonic interchange at all levels of a group.” Ulmer told Guitar Player’s Bill Milkowski, “It’s a unison tuning where every string is tuned to the same note, like a one string guitar… It’s total freedom.”
Although born and raised in South Carolina, Ulmer was not exposed to the blues as a youth but rather sang gospel music and listened to country-and-western music and jazz. “A blues song was kind of like taboo. My mama used to beat my butt if I wanted to do a blues straight out…. We came from the church. We couldn’t play no stuff like that,” he was quoted in materials from his publicist.
Ulmer moved to Pittsburgh after graduating from high school in the early 1960s and immediately plugged into that city’s vibrant jazz scene. In 1962 he was hired as a guitarist for rhythm and blues singer Jewel Bryner. Three years later he moved to Columbus, Ohio, and led the house band of a local club, where he backed a variety of soul singers and gained an admiration for jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery. He next moved to Detroit, where he was introduced to the experimental side of jazz by numerous musicians, among them saxophonists John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, and Pharoah Sanders. While there, he joined a cooperative progressive jazz ensemble, Focus Novii. In 1971 Ulmer left for New York and the following year began working with the legendary Coleman, who introduced him to the concept of harmolodics.
In 1978 Ulmer began performing under his own name, often joined by future MRE members Murray and Jackson, who both share Ulmer’s Coleman influence, along with trumpeter Olu Dara and saxophonist Arthur Blythe. MRE was formed two years later.
Murray, the son of musical parents, discovered jazz while a student in Berkeley, California, where he picked up the alto saxophone. He switched to tenor saxophone after hearing jazz legend Sonny Rollins play. At California’s Pomona College he studied with a former Coleman trumpeter Bobby Bradford. After college, Murray moved to New York and opened a loft space with critic Stanley Crouch called Studio Infinity. In 1976 he founded the seminal World Saxophone Quartet with Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and future MRE collaborator Hamiet Bluiett.
Jackson began playing drums professionally in Texas at the age of 15. He moved to New York in 1966, where he worked with such jazz luminaries as bassist Charles Mingus, bop saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, and freejazz saxophonist Albert Ayler. In 1975 he joined Coleman’s group Prime Time and began playing with Ulmer in 1979.
Ali brought an impressive pedigree to the group; his father Rashied, also an Ulmer collaborator, had replaced Elvin Jones as saxophonist John Coltrane’s drummer in the 1960s. The younger Ali, who appears on four MRE albums, has also performed with a host of others including Dara, drummer Samm Bennett, and British saxophonist Django Bates. He appears on three of Ulmer’s solo albums as well.
While much of Ulmer’s solo work practiced harmolodics as rooted in the blues, his work with MRE allowed him to explore different terrain. “The purpose was in creating a sound that doesn’t inhibit. A freedom to play within jazz. It was a job to do,” he told Steven Dalachinsky, who wrote the liner notes for MRE’s fourth album, In the Name of the Music Revelation Ensemble. Dalachinsky himself credited the group with creating “a
Members include Amin Ali , bass; Ronald Shannon Jackson (born on January 12, 1940, in Fort Worth, TX), drums; David Murray (born on February 19, 1955, in Berkeley, CA), tenor saxophone; James “Blood” Ulmer (born on February 2, 1942, in St. Matthews, SC), guitar. Other members have included Arthur Blythe (born on July 5, 1940, in Los Angeles, CA), saxophone; Hamiet Bluiett (born on September 16, 1940, in Lovejoy, IL), saxophone; Calvin “Fuzz” Jones , bass; Sam Rivers (born on September 25, 1923, in El Reno, OK), saxophone; Cornell Rochester , drums; Pharoah Sanders (born on October 13, 1940, in Little Rock, AR), saxophone; Jamaaladeen Tacuma (born on June 11, 1956, in Hempstead, NY), bass; John Zorn (born on September 2, 1953, in New York, NY), saxophone.
Group formed with Ulmer on guitar, Murray on tenor saxophone, Ali on electric bass, and Jackson on drums, released No Wave on Moers Records, 1980; Ulmer has remained the only constant in the group, although Murray, Ali, and Jackson have all returned for subsequent recordings; album releases include No Wave, 1980; Music Revelation Ensemble, 1988; Elec. Jazz, 1990; After Dark, 1992; In the Name of the Music Revelation Ensemble, 1994; Knights of Power, 1996; and Cross Fire, 1998.
fine-lined synthesis between established modes and fresh ideas.”
No Wave was not a universal hit with the critics, however. Graham Flashner and Ira Robbins of the Trouser Press website called it “Ulmer’s most inaccessible work and his least focused.” The band’s rotating lineup had already begun to take shape, with Cornell Rochester replacing Jackson on drums and Jamaaladeen Tacuma, another Prime Time alum, joining Ali on bass. MRE was quiet for the next eight years, until the 1988 release of Music Revelation Ensemble. Jackson returned for this album while Tacuma was the sole bassist.
Ulmer kept the group active throughout the 1990s, releasing Elec. Jazz in 1990 and After Dark in 1992 on Japanese record label DIW with a lineup including Ali, Murray and Rochester. After Dark also featured Michelle Kinney on cello and the Intercity String Quartet and marked, as noted by All Music Guide’s Thom Jurek, “the first recorded attempt by Ulmer to write for harmolodic guitar and string quartet.”
In the Name of the Music Revelation Ensemble, released in 1994 and picked up by Columbia, featured Ali and Rochester and a cadre of saxophonists: Arthur Blythe, Sam Rivers, and Hamiet Bluiett. “Together they create an immense wall of free-form sound that has as much in common with the experimental noise-rock of Sonic Youth and Glenn Branca as it does with traditional jazz,” wrote All Music Guide’s Bret Love of the ensemble featured on this release. Ulmer outlined his expansive vision for MRE in the album’s liner notes: “I play every kinda chord you can hear under the f***in’sun behind the players while they’re playin’so as to make sure that they list every territory that was ever played by these other musicians but that also fits into their free sound… I extended the musical language by adding what’s always been left out and created a group that had all the color sounds of jazz.”
Everyone but Rivers returned for 1996’s Knights of Power while 1998’s Cross Fire completely mixed things up with Rochester returning, free-jazz legend Pharoah Sanders and avant-garde mainstay John Zorn taking over saxophone duties, and Calvin “Fuzz” Jones playing bass. By the new millennium, MRE had continued to morph, with Ulmer and Sanders remaining the two constants with an ever-rotating cast joining them on tour.
No Wave, Moers, 1980.
Music Revelation Ensemble, DIW, 1988.
Elec. Jazz, DIW, 1990.
After Dark, DIW, 1992.
In the Name of the Music Revelation Ensemble, DIW/Columbia, 1994.
Knights of Power, DIW, 1996.
Cross Fire, DIW, 1998.
Down Beat, April 1994.
Guitar player, April 1994.
“James Blood Ulmer,” Trouser Press, http://www.trouserpress.com/search.php?name=james+blood+ulmer&search_type=artist (July 3, 2003).
“Music Revelation Ensemble,” All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (July 3, 2003).
Additional information was obtained from the liner notes by Steven Dalachinsky to In the Name of the Music Revelation Ensemble, DIW/Columbia, 1994, and James “Blood” Ulmer’s publicist.