Just when it seems you've figured out a label for the music of James "Blood" Ulmer, he suddenly morphs into something else.
On Tuesday at the Jazz Bakery, the iconoclastic guitarist opened his set with a spiritual-like invocation before switching into an indefinable, free-jazz romp. A bit later, he played a rudimentary riff tune followed by an excursion through the blues. In between, he added a few vocals, delivered in his rich, deep, engaging voice.
Given Ulmer's background, which reaches across the musical spectrum from funk, rock and blues to a highly visible encounter with the harmolodic notions of Ornette Coleman, the colorful panorama of styles present in his program wasn't surprising. But it wasn't always particularly convincing, either.
Ulmer's trio also included bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille -- highly proficient veterans with impressive avant-garde credentials.
But the cloudy air of uncertainty that was present in many of the numbers tended to obscure much of their inventiveness.
Workman's solos intermittently revealed the powers of an artist whose playing has graced the music of everyone from John Coltrane to Art Blakey. And Cyrille's equally remarkable abilities surfaced primarily during a solo in which he moved seamlessly from playing on his drums to tapping on his seat, the wall and the floor.
Ulmer was more focused but less interesting. His free-roving efforts were little more than wild-fingered swatches of sound, while his chord-based improvising represented acceptable but hardly extraordinary mainstream playing
Jazz artists who embrace a multiplicity of styles are only as effective as the central impulse that drives those styles. And in Ulmer's case, there simply wasn't enough there.
James 'Blood' Ulmer
Where: The Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City
When: Tonight through Sunday, 8 and 9:30 p.m.
Price: $25 today; $30 Friday through Sunday
Info: (310) 271-9039