Blues From Mars 

Thursday, Feb 6 2003
Photo by B. Diemannoberger

at the Jazz Bakery, January 30

Up on stage are three ungrumpy old men, all in their seventh decade. They're a little bit wise guys, a whole lot wise men. At right is the eldest, Reggie Workman (b. 1937), who's playing an upright bass that looks like it was made from a disused rowboat. It's loaded with contact mikes and nerf material; a set of bows is lodged near the strings' foot like matador's swords in a bull's neck. During a solo piece in the second set, Workman will blow into a ribbed vacuum tube attached to the bass, creating a ram's horn to accompany his note work. Most of the time he doesn't watch his hands, instead gazes intently at the audience; in ensemble play he watches his fellow players' hands.

At center sits the drummer, Andrew Cyrille (b. 1939): modest, compact and robust, as much a compositionalist as a rhythm maker, a man whose illustrious career includes work with Cecil Taylor in the '60s. When he finishes an extended solo piece, he breathes onto the snare not from fatigue, but from something deeper. A restorative breath of life to a beaten skin, perhaps?

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And seated at left is the youngster leading this trio: electric guitarist­vocalist James "Blood" Ulmer (b. 1942). Dressed in white, his braided hair in a topknot, wearing sunglasses and some leather-and-rattlesnake-skin boots, Ulmer is a dread bedouin with a guitar and a trickster-coyote spirit. "Just because I kissed you on the lips/It don't mean/We have to have sex," Ulmer sings gently, bending forward, the guitar's body against his hips, his knees almost knocking together. Like the oldest traditional bluesmen, Ulmer doesn't use a pick; his thumb plays the rhythm while fingers on the same hand pick the lead. But Ulmer's work is hardly trad: His electric guitar has an acoustic tone, and his spidery mathfingers play long riff-knots, abrupt flurries and twirls and bursts: thrilling Malian blues from Mars.

With Workman and Cyrille, Ulmer takes jazz and peels it back to show its blues. But they peel back the onion even further, showing a buzzy, bustling, endlessly interesting globe of interlocking and intercrossing sound at the music's core. That's an ageless lesson only learned elders can teach.

at the Baked Potato, January 29

After monthlong residencies at both Spaceland and the Mint, Wayne Kramer has found a club where his on-the-fly style of programming fits comfortably. The packed house at the Baked Potato was enthused to watch him maneuver wherever his whim took him, encouraging the players to stretch as far as possible. Opening with "Dead Movie Stars" from his '96 release Dangerous Madness, Kramer played it straight for the first few numbers, sticking with the arrangements more or less as they appeared on disc. Joining the versatile rhythm section of bassist Doug Lunn and drummer Eric Gardner, Kramer's band was rounded out by Zappa alumnus Mike Keneally, who played guitar with his left hand and keyboard with his right simultaneously on many numbers.

Joining midset was poet­writer­music scholar John Sinclair, whose lifelong affiliation with Kramer involves revolutionary activities musical, political and chemical. As the manager of the MC5, Sinclair not only marched Kramer to the top of the late-'60s Detroit rock pile, but also introduced them to Coltrane, free jazz and no shortage of psychedelic substances. It was these gateway influences that Sinclair brought to the stage as he recited from his book Fattening Frogs for Snakes. The material salutes Sinclair's blues and jazz heroes Charlie Patton, Muddy, Monk and Trane, with stories of mojos, voodoo and devilish negotiations at the crossroads. Kramer and Keneally gobbled it up, playing gritty blues riffs in counterpoint. They were joined in turn by Ralph "Buzzy" Jones on flute and Dr. Charles Moore on trumpet (who wailed on the final MC5 studio record High Time). Their broad smiles betrayed the fun they were having blasting the simple blues riffs along with Kramer's crew.

After a break, the second set went deep into freeform territory, with Keneally unleashing a fuzzed-out solo reminiscent of his former boss, and Sinclair grinning through tales of Allen Ginsberg turning a grumpy Thelonious Monk on to his initial dose of acid. High times, indeed! (SL Duff)


at House of Blues, January 28

While East Los Angeles soul-rock veteranos Thee Midniters rarely converge on a bandstand, when they do, it is a serious matter — particularly if vocalist Little Willie G., who spends far more time spreading the gospel than he does jumping the big beat, is along for the ride. Ably abetted by an additional trio of original Midniters — bassist Jimmy Espinoza, trombonist Romeo Prado and sax man Larry Retalon — and rounded out with the simpatico likes of current Cannibal & the Headhunters drummer Robert Zapata and Tierra horn chieftain Bobby Loya (who began his career, as Willie G. pointed out, playing in the '60s combo the Blue Satins), this was no slapdash, cash-in lineup.

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