One of the musicians who most inspires me is James Blood Ulmer. Ulmer played guitar in Ornette Coleman’s bands in the 1970s and has gone on to record many records as a band leader and frontman since. In 2005 Ulmer released Birthright, a record of solo performances which included new songs, blues covers, and solo guitar and flute. One song, “Geechee Joe”, narrates the life of Ulmer’s grandfather:
The distinctive elements of Ulmer’s songwriting are brought to the surface in this performance. His music uses Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic concept, but it draws ideas and elements from blues, country, and other American “roots” musics. The song structure is what we might expect from a folk or country song, and the improvisatory feel of the guitar arrangement simultaneously suggests (to me) the loosest front porch performance and the most sophisticated jazz interpretation. That the song shares its title with a Cab Calloway number is probably not lost on Ulmer either.
The bare arrangement helps the song achieve or suggest a variety of musical ideas in a short time. In this case the bare song is like a simple poem that lets the reader fill in the details – it encourages a form of active listening and engagement with the music. A bigger arrangement demands answers to questions which the bare version leaves productively ambiguous. Is it a folk song, a country song, a jazz song, or a blues? What are the chord changes? How many bars is that solo? How should we feel about Geechee Joe? Is this an anthem or an elegy?