James Blood Ulmer is among the most distinctive and influential electric guitarists to emerge in the past four decades. Over time, Blood’s reputation has morphed from that of an avant–garde jazz visionary out of the Ornette Coleman school to elder statesman of the African–American musical vernacular encom¬passing jazz, blues, funk, and whatever lies beyond
James Blood Ulmer - guitar, vocals
Vernon Reid - guitar
Mazz Swift - violin
Leon Gruenbaum - keyboards
David Barnes - harmonica
Mark Peterson - bass
Aubrey Dayle - drums
ABOUT JAMES BLOOD ULMER
James Blood Ulmer was once described by the omnipotent Village Voice music critic and co-founder of the Black Rock Coalition, Greg Tate, as: “…the missing link between Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery on one hand, between P-Funk and Mississippi Fred McDowell on the other.” Indeed, the 70-year old guitarist, vocalist and composer hovers atop the pantheon of American music mavericks. Forging an unyielding synthesis of musical styles, vision and virtuosity, Ulmer has left an indelible mark on those keen ears who’ve dared to follow him to that intangible place where the fiercest, most holy music occurs.
The first of nine children, James Blood Ulmer was born in 1940 in rural St. Matthews, South Carolina to God-fearing parents who gave him a strict Baptist upbringing. His father, a preacher at the local ministry, gave his son his first guitar at the age of four in order to prepare him for the gospel life. “My Daddy started me playing the guitar when I was four. He would be playing the upper part and have my fingers strumming. I got into it like that.” Raised on the music of the church and exposed at a young age to national touring gospel acts, including The Five Blind Boys From Alabama, The National Clouds of Joy and The Dixie Hummingbirds, it was the Lord’s music that inspired him most in the formative years. While still in elementary school he joined The Southern Sons, a vocal quartet modeled after his earliest gospel influences. He remained with the group, gigging around the south, for the next seven years.
While gospel may have sparked Blood’s passion for music, the flames quickly spread as he discovered new sounds and styles. On the radio, early rock & roll, country & western and blues reigned, and Blood loved it. Mornings, while dressing for school, he often tuned into a show that featured Chuck Berry’s “School Days” as its theme. The blues, however, was a different story. It was alternately alluring and frightening, a struggle for him that still exists to this day. Viewed as the devil’s music by his parents, he’d often have to sneak the music behind their back. “This here’s the music that got me thrown out of the house by my mamma,” remembers Blood. “I broke every law in the book to listen to some blues. She used to beat my butt if I want to do a blues straight out: ‘Oh, Ba-by take me down, down.’ We came from the church. We couldn’t play no stuff like that.”
With a growing fascination for the big city and a desire to explore the world on his own terms, Blood set out north for Pittsburgh at the age of 17, moving in with his mother’s cousin. Within the space of a year, his vocation was sealed, as he began accompanying an assortment of doo-wop groups, including The Savoys, and even toured on a Dick Clark sponsored “Caravan of the Stars,” backing the Del Vikings of “Come Go With Me” fame.
In addition to the invaluable experience as full-time working musician, Pittsburgh also exposed Ulmer to a juke joint scene where funky organ-tenor combos played deep into the night. It wasn’t long before Blood was sitting in with the likes of Richard “Groove” Holmes and Jimmy Smith. He joined Ernie Goldsmith’s local trio in ’61, developing jazz chops to match his solid foundation in gospel and rhythm & blues. The following year, Jewel Bryner, a Midwest R&B singer, hired “Blood” as the guitarist in her backing band, the Swing Kings. Given the plethora of record labels active in the R&B field at the time, it’s odd that Bryner never recorded. Perhaps she never found the time: “Blood” reckons that during his three-year tenure with the Swing Kings, he spent a total of three weeks off the road! “It was the busiest unrecorded band in the history of music!” he declares.
By ’65, Blood’s six long years on the chitlin’ circuit had grown tiresome. He yearned to dive headlong into jazz and follow in the footsteps of his hero, guitarist Wes Montgomery. Not yet able to escape the R&B scene, he took a regular gig in Columbus, Ohio at The 502 Club, where he led the house band in backing a succession of visiting soul singers. Soon thereafter, a long awaited break arrived when he managed to land a high profile spot in popular organist Hank Marr’s group. Hank Marr was, in Blood’s words, “the beginning of the jazz portion” of his career. With him, Blood toured the U.S. and Europe and made his first recordings on a rare King Records LP entitled In the Marr-Ketplace. Around this same time, an event took place that forever changed his life. “Blood” tells this anecdote: “My favorite, favorite, most favorite guitar player of all time was Wes Montgomery. I felt like I knew how he breathed; I just could feel everything he played. He was my only key to how to get into music. He was a guy that I could feel like he felt, even if I didn’t actually play the same notes. I played for that feeling that he had from the guitar. So I followed that on and on and on, until one week, we were at a club – the Hubbub in Indianapolis. And Wes Montgomery came in the club. He stood at the bar all night. And we played all night. I was so anxious to…want him to say something about how I sounded like him. I wanted him to tell me. I know he probably wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, you sound like me,’ or something like that. But I wanted to get some approval from Wes Montgomery about the way I was playing the guitar. He was sitting on the corner of the bar, and I just kept walking and standing next to him. But [he] never said nothing to me. He never said nothing the whole night.”
Ulmer took Montgomery’s silence as a rebuke; a call to develop his own voice. He says that the development of his revolutionary approach to the guitar began here: “I started from that day trying to work on substitution of all Western music forms. I was trying to figure out how to eliminate playing scales and sequences, figure out how not to use regular conventional chords.”
By 1967, a great wave of progressive black music was at its crest, spearheaded by such musicians as Yusef Lateef, Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders. “I moved to Detroit,” Blood says. “I knew a lot of progressive musicians were based there, and I wanted to see if I couldn’t play something new myself. I started studying a lot, tearing my music down.” Ulmer’s experimental side developed in a cooperative jazz group called Focus Novii, while he continued to work trio gigs at Detroit’s 20 Grand Club. The other house band at this legendary club was none other then Funkadelic.
While still frustrated with the struggle to develop his own unique voice, Blood wound up a sideman on a handful of Blue Note recordings, most notably with the organist Big John Patton. He began to work on original material, as well. Unbeknownst to Ulmer, he was making progress. “Detroit was a place where every jazz musician who was important – John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordan – spent time. For about six months I played at a club called the Bluebird, where the owner was very much in love with jazz. At the end of my gig he said, ‘listen, you can play the guitar, so I want you to go to New York City and find Miles Davis. Tell him I sent you to play with him.’ I said, ‘Good give me the money, I’m ready to go.’ He did, and I came to New York. I never found Miles, but I found Ornette!”
James Blood Ulmer’s career would take a dramatic turn upon arriving in New York City in ’71 and meeting the legendary avant-garde jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. The association would lead to a stint in Coleman’s revolutionary group, as well as, collaborations with a colossal lot of groundbreaking, experimental musicians: Rashied Ali, Larry Young, Joe Henderson, Paul Bley and Arthur Blythe to name but a few. The seeds were sown for the ‘70s loft jazz scene, a movement named after the large, then uninhabited, SOHO loft spaces where jazz musicians had gravitated for cheap rent and the ability to play all hours of the day and night without being disturbed.
Despite steadily falling under the influence of Ornette’s harmolodic theory and free music experimentations, Ulmer kept one foot in straight ahead jazz by holding down a gig at Milton’s Playhouse with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. Ulmer explains, “See, I never played harmolodic music till I came to New York, or played any music that was free. When I came to New York, I was 31 years old, and I ain’t never thought nobody could make no money playing free music. So I always played structured blues, rhythm playing, dance music or something like that. And I abandoned it! When I came to New York, it was like… I just went totally another way. I fell so much in love with the harmolodic idea.”
“Coleman used to drill me,” says Ulmer, “and I used to play for him so much. Like he used to get his horn and say, ‘Play B-flat. Play E-flat. Gimme this; gimme that; gimme that.’ I went through about six months of what Coleman called harmolodic guitar modulations; then I knew melody was the essential thing to harmolodic music. While still living in Coleman’s loft, one night I had a dream that set me free – I dreamt of a guitar tuning that totally eliminated scales and chords. I woke up, took my guitar and began tuning the strings to the notes I dreamed about. I started to play, and it worked. I couldn’t wait to show Ornette what had happened. I went to his room and said, Coleman, listen. I began to play my guitar and he picked up his horn and listened for a long time. Then he said Blood you have moved the tone center, making the treble clef a transposing note for the guitar. He said play B-flat, I said I’m not tuned to B-flat. Play E-flat, I said I’m not tuned to E-flat. In fact all my strings are tuned to one note – I have one note with all six strings tuned to the same sound. Music was jumping out! Coleman was amazed. He made me feel like I just graduated from his harmolodic school of music.”
Sadly, no recordings of the Ornette Coleman group with James “Blood” Ulmer have ever been released, but underexposure occasioned its own sort of motivation. Ulmer began his solo career by cutting an album with old pal George Adams, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Doug Hammond. Circumstances intervened, however and Revealing wasn’t released for 12 years. Coleman, it turns out heard the Revealing tapes and convinced Blood to shelve the project and let him (Coleman) produce and play on the sessions that became Tales of Captain Black. Released in ’78, it was a stunning debut with the promise of great things to come. More than 15 years after setting off wide-eyed and naïve from South Carolina, James Blood Ulmer had finally begun to stake his claim to the American music tapestry.
With critics touting him the hottest new thing on the scene and fans packing his New York City performances, Blood’s career was growing in leaps and bounds. The British record label, Rough Trade, best known for ushering in new wave with The Smiths, Pere Ubu and the Violent Femmes, offered Ulmer a record deal with the intention of crossing him over to rock audiences. He accepted and went right back into the studio to record, Are You Glad To Be In America?, a frentic concoction of free funk and jazz that pushed the concept of harmolodic guitar towards previously unimagined frontiers, while introducing his guttural, Howlin’ Wolf inspired vocals into the mix. On the success of this record, Ulmer found himself being compared to the likes of Jimi Hendrix, and began landing gigs at popular New York City rock clubs such as the Roxy, where it was previously unheard for jazz artists to appear. The hype was so intense that major label powerhouse CBS got in on the action, buying out Ulmer’s contract with Rough Trade. He’d record three landmark records for CBS, beginning with Free Lancing in ’81. Again the critics gushed with praise, and record sales were brisk if not chart-topping. In ’82, he followed with Black Rock, a record that clearly took the next step in fusing funk, rock and jazz within the unique composition style Blood had been honing. During this period, Ulmer also landed several high profile tours and gigs, including spots with Public Image Limited and Captain Beefheart.
All the while, the irreversible hand of destiny was setting the course. On one hand, James Blood Ulmer was experiencing the greatest successes of his career, yet on the other, CBS was quickly losing interest in attempting to break an artist as idealistic and complex. His 1983 recording, Odyssey, did nothing to ease the tension. Ulmer alongside violinist Charles Burnham and drummer Warren Benbow, delivered an album of visceral, raw emotion that went straight to the depths of deepest, darkest Africa, while simultaneously traversing the American music landscape. Blues, jazz, funk, country and freeform noise spilled over in dense musical themes and sonic structures. Odyssey is considered by many as a peak moment in American music daring. Ironically, only four years after being hailed the next great thing, it was also the calling card by which CBS dropped Ulmer from his contract.
Without the support of a major label, the following years grew more and more difficult. While Ulmer’s audience continued to expand in Europe, he was left on the fringes by American music fans that were becoming increasingly more complacent in their tastes. Disillusioned at the failed prospect of reaching a wider audience and having never fulfilled the expectations of music industry executives, Blood recorded sparingly through the remainder of the ‘80s for small European labels. Artistically, his focus seemed to be wavering. He dabbled in blues, but never seemed to fully commit to the music. Perhaps he was still struggling with the conflict the music had presented in his development, and deeper still, the African-American stigma that blues music lacked sophistication.
Flash forward to 2003. After spending the majority of the ‘90s continuing to carve out his own path with ambitious jazz projects and regular tours of Europe, James Blood Ulmer is in the unique position of being hailed a jazz icon, and there’s a growing consensus among musicians to support this view. Bands and artists including Living Colour, Medeski, Martin and Wood, Andy Summers of The Police, Warren Haynes and Mark Ribot declare him a major influence. In 2001, Living Colour guitarist, Vernon Reid convinced Ulmer to record an album of blues standards that focused heavily on his vocals. Recorded at the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis, the album entitled, Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions, became Blood’s most successful of the last decade, reawakening fans and critics alike to the power and electricity James Blood Ulmer is capable of summoning, including a Grammy Award-nomination for “Best Traditional Blues Album.” In 2003, he released, No Escape From The Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions, which takes the concept Reid began one step further, this time following the blues migration north to New York City to record at the fabled Electric Lady Studios that Hendrix founded three decades earlier. Much like its predecessor, the album was met with rave reviews and led to a number of high profile appearances such as a billing on Martin Scorscese’s blues celebration at Radio City Music Hall.
In 2005, James Blood Ulmer reinvented himself once again with Birthright, his first ever solo album. Captured alone on vocals and guitar featuring nearly all original compositions, it’s his most stark, personal and iconoclastic album to date. On songs like “Geechee Joe,” “Take My Music Back To The Church” and “White Man’s Jail,” Ulmer deals directly with the proverbial hellhounds on his trail, including religion, racism and failed relationships. The results were riveting. Guitar Player magazine called it: "A groundbreaking performance with roots that go back to Africa and beyond!" Rolling Stone Magazine declared: "The blues - ancient and modern, from Blind Willie McTell to Ornette Coleman - have always run deep in this South Carolinian's black rock and future jazz. But on Birthright, there is nothing but blues: just Ulmer's subterranean rock-slide moan and spider dance guitar improvisations, in stark, original memoirs...Ulmer has taken the long road home...But he sounds like he never left."
Now fully in the midst of career revival, James Blood Ulmer is set to release his latest effort, Bad Blood In The City: The Piety Street Sessions, in May 2007. Joined by The Memphis Blood Blues Band (featuring Vernon Reid), Ulmer went to New Orleans to record the album. Based on a cycle of songs that deal with Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, it’s sure to be viewed as Ulmer’s most politically and socially charged recording of his career.
Whether it’s art imitating life or life imitating art, the trials of James Blood Ulmer’s career have only made his art that much more potent. It appears he’s capable of channeling life’s experiences through his soul in order to lay it bare in the music. If he were never to record again, his reputation as an American music pioneer is already cemented in stone. One would think, however, that there’s a great deal more to come, because Blood lives the music, is the music and he’ll grow old bringing the music. And as always, that devout audience with big ears and keen instincts will be taking it all in. And perhaps a new generation will show-up, glad to be in America, digging James Blood Ulmer.
Official Website: http://citywinery.com/events/275902
Added by E_b on May 18, 2012