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Odyssey the Band - Back in Time

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Artist: Odyssey the Band

Album: Back in Time

Label: Pi Recordings

Review date: Apr. 2, 2006

In a fairly recent radio interview, James Blood Ulmer performed a voice-and-guitar lament for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, telling neither interviewer nor listener what it was going to be. It brought me close to tears, heavily seasoned with anger and deep sorrow. His playing just gets better with each new project, wisdom hanging on every note and chord he moans, his voice growing ever deeper and more resonant. He brings many years of experience to Back in Time, the third Odyssey album and maybe the best one yet.

The new version of “Little Red House” is even more raw and powerful than the 1983 rendition, with Ulmer’s guitar and Charles Burnham’s violin bringing the trio’s unique sound to the fore. Warren Benbow’s playing has even more muscle than before, and Blood’s exuberant shout as the band kicks into one of its trademark time signature alterations has a whole lot a bite. Where the tune used to be a slow funky romp, now it’s as if the Theater of Eternal Music had decided to add Benbow. The overall timbre is thick but sharp, making the track even more invigorating, nasty and downright sensual than before.

These three veterans haven’t lost any of the spark that made their 1983 album so simple and so innovative. Modal structures are continually juxtaposed with just a hint of world music in the form of drones, semi-exotic beats and violin slides courtesy of Burnham’s wah-wah-induced electricity. No bass player is necessary, as somebody, maybe Ulmer, provides deep, foundational tones for every track.

The production itself is very minimal, and in less capable hands could seem flat or colorless, but a deep respect for the trio is evident in what I take to be a simple attempt at capturing their sound without updating it. Despite rhythmic and melodic innovation, an unapologetic simplicity takes root throughout. As good as the disc is though, nothing prepared me for “Free for Three,” which just might be the finest thing this group has ever set to tape. Ulmer shows his “free” jazz chops, and the others, also no strangers to playing out, follow right along in one of the most astonishingly compact explorations of the avant-garde I’ve heard in some time. It shows that the group still has many paths to explore, and that some 25 years after the first album, they are as vibrant and adventurous as ever. Ulmer has made some remarkable music in the past year, and Back in Time continues the trend.

By Marc Medwin

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