02. Big Tree 8:45
03. Baby Talk 9:36
04. Sound Check 8:06
Drums, Percussion – Ronald Shannon Jackson
Electric Bass – Amin Ali
Guitar, Vocals – James Blood Ulmer
Tenor Saxophone – David Murray
Recorded at: Studio 57, Düsseldorf, June 1980
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 “one 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 , “It’s a unison tuning where every string is tuned to the same note, like a one string guitar… It’s total freedom.”
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.
Jackson began playing drums professionally in Texas. 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.
Amin 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...
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..
Released in 1980, after the peak of the short-lived but influential "No Wave" movement -- consisting mainly of punk-affiliated practitioners -- the aptly titled debut No Wave by the free jazz supergroup Music Revelation Ensemble (with James Blood Ulmer on guitar, David Murray on horns, Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums, and Amin Ali on bass) is nothing short of a provocation. Here, four jazz musicians unleash a harmolodic version of No Wave, anchored by Amin Ali's decisive basslines. Ulmer's guitar and Murray's horn swim around Ali's electrified low end, generating wonderfully executed pieces of organized chaos. Save for the more structured and meditative number "Big Tree," the remainder of the album bursts with frenetic energy. By re-appropriating the jazzy subtext of the supposedly non-musical No Wave movement (whose figureheads did include the likes of Arto Lindsay, the saxophonist James Chance, and John Lurie of the Lounge Lizards), the Music Revelation Ensemble here end up "legitimizing" No Wave (jazz was being taught in the academy by the late 1970s) and expanding the original (cultural) conception of that sound and movement beyond its initially provincial and myopic* origins.
*For context, read the 1979 Lester Bangs essay "The White Noise Supremacists"