James “Blood” Ulmer – Harmolodic blues in A
“The blues to me is like the concept of the talking drum. They used to use the drums to communicate, and the blues was also about communication. I think of the blues as something that ties you into history, something that’s deeper than what you were doing last night.”
James “Blood” Ulmer has played everything from free jazz to black rock on his Gibson Birdland, but he didn’t record a true blues album until he was nearly 60 years old, and even then, it took Vernon Reid a month of Sundays to get Ulmer to accept the assignment.
“A blues record?” says Ulmer, recalling Reid’s persistent proposals. “I would have never thought to make a blues record.” Now he’s made three, including two collections of urban blues and the new Birthright (released by Hyena in late May), which just might be the first country-blues record to employ a guitar in which each string is tuned to A. “A guy from the south ain’t got to play blues,” Ulmer continues, “because there’s blue shit all over that bad boy. You’re living the blues.”
Ulmer’s deep, throaty laugh echoes through his loft in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood. When he moved in 30 years ago, there was a battery acid factory across the street, and a community of artists and musicians who made the area famous for free-jazz loft concerts and cutting-edge art galleries. Now that’s history, and his home is surrounded by expensive boutiques. Either way, it’s a long way from St. Matthews, South Carolina, where Ulmer was born on February 2, 1942.
The blues might be baked into the South Carolina soil, but Ulmer’s Baptist preacher father made it clear that the devil’s music was not welcome in his household. That’s why Ulmer grew up singing gospel with his father’s group, the Southern Sons. And why he opens Birthright with a song called “Take My Music Back To The Church”. “I’m going to take my music back to the church/Where the blues was misunderstood,” he sings, his deep, tremulous voice framed by reverberating guitar rhythms. “Some people think it’s the song of the devil/But it’s the soul of the man for sure.”
In recent years, some of the very best blues has been recorded by musicians schooled in jazz. Think of Cassandra Wilson covering tunes from the repertoires of Robert Johnson and Son House; or Olu Dara, a colleague of Ulmer on the avant-garde jazz scene (and the father of rap star Nas), who blended blues, folk and jazz on In The World: From Natchez To New York and Neighborhoods.
Ulmer’s first two blues albums, Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions (nominated for a Grammy in the traditional blues category) and No Escape From The Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions, revealed him to be not only an innovative guitarist, but a powerful singer as well, and did the near impossible by putting a fresh, emotional spin on familiar chestnuts of urban blues. Add Birthright, a solo recording featuring his own compositions (alongside “I Ain’t Superstitious” and “Sittin’ On Top Of The World”), and Ulmer just might be the most intriguing new blues artist of a young century.
“The blues in a jazz context is often seen as a platform,” said Vernon Reid, who became famous as the guitarist in the black rock band Living Colour and has produced all three of Ulmer’s blues collections. “That’s because the simple changes lets you play all sorts of fabulous stuff. But what happens is that the feeling of the blues can get lost, because it’s about playing well and not about the underlying emotion. Blood doesn’t condescend to the material, and that’s a crucial distinction. He’s completely present.”
One reason Ulmer was so fresh for the 2001 Memphis Blood sessions was that he let Reid hire and rehearse the band (which included a key Ulmer collaborator, fiddle player Charlie Burnham) as well as choose the material. Three days before recording was to begin at Sun Studios in Memphis, Ulmer got the titles and the lyrics and set about finding his way into the tunes (his guitar would take care of itself).
“It’s like when I did that Muddy Waters song, ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You'” Ulmer observes, “I had to stop and figure out what he meant with that ‘I don’t want you to be no slave.’ But the thing about it was the story was written out so good, all I had to do was sing it.”
Ulmer thinks too many people bloat the blues; he aims to cut close to the bone. “Some blues players don’t really sing the music,” he says, “but use the songs to stretch out and play fifteen choruses on the guitar. But the blues player don’t take fifteen choruses; they play the song. The brothers who really play the blues are focused on the song they’re singing. If the song’s about a chicken, you don’t have the mule in there.”
Reid’s song selections didn’t shy away from such blues standards as “Spoonful”, “Little Red Rooster” and “Bright Lights, Big City”, and Ulmer consistently found new wine in these old bottles. “When most people play the blues,” Reid suggests, “the weight of that history is so great that it’s very hard to find a new way into the story. Blood didn’t have to work at it. He’s lived the life of a bluesman, so these songs just come naturally.”
Ulmer has taken a long road to the blues. “You go to school to become a real musician,” he says by way of biography. “When I left South Carolina, I spent a lot time in music sections. I played gospel music from 7 years old to 15 years old. I played R&B music from 18-to-twentysomething years old. I played everything a long time. Then I played free music for a long time which brought me to my own thing, which I’ve been working on for twenty years. It’s like going to school; you don’t learn everything in one year.”