Guitarist James Blood Ulmer's played his way through a veritable history of American music. Beginning guitar as a four-year-old in 1946, Ulmer was singing professionally with the gospel group The Southern Sons while still in grade school. Ulmer went on to play guitar on the national R&B/doo-wop chitlin' circuit until he devoted himself to jazz, becoming something of a Wes Montgomery imitator until he reinvented himself as, well, himself, playing in Detroit in the 1960s with the likes of Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp. A trip to New York in 1971 led to a tragically unrecorded tenure with Ornette Coleman (Ulmer's own experimentations had made him a perfect student of Coleman's harmolodic theory of music) until Ulmer went solo, producing the remarkable Tales of Captain Black in 1978 and a series of other masterpieces like Free Lancing and Black Rock in the 1980s that blended free jazz with searing Hendrixian rock and funk.
Ulmer went through a fallow period in the later 1980s and through the 1990s, but reemerged in 2001 with Memphis Blood, an album of classic-blues covers with a focus not on Ulmer's guitar, but on his vocals. Good though the album and its followup No Escape From the Blues were, Ulmer's new solo blues CD, Birthrightwhich consists of only Ulmer's voice and solo guitar (plus a taste of his flute)is superior to them. But then, it's the best blues album in years. I spoke with Ulmer about the new album, his revolutionary unison guitar tuning, why blues were forbidden in his family when he was a child, and the elimination of the bass guitar in Ulmer's next-thing blues conception.
All About Jazz: You've always had blues in your musicactually, you've always had almost every kind of music in your music. But the Memphis Blood CD really put you into the blues all the way, and now you've done the new Birthright album. I want to start by talking about the two CDs before Birthright, Memphis Blood and No Escape From the Blues, which are mostly other people's blues tunes done by you and a great band. What made you decide to do Memphis Blood?
James Blood Ulmer: First of all, Memphis Blood wasn't my decision at all. I would have never in a million years came up with that idea.
AAJ: Oh, really.
JBU: [Laughing] No, no, no. That was my colleague Vernon Reid. He had the imagination in his brain that I was a hidden bluesman. So he kept pounding me, kept on me: "ah, Blood, I want to produce a blues record on you. I said, "man, a blues record? I mean, I always tried to play the bluesundercover. So what kind of blues was he talking about? So I said, "okay, ah, good. So a year went by, another year, he's like, "Blood! I've got this great idea! You know, Vernon, he's a diplomat; he can talk: "I have this great idea! He convinced me. I said, "okay, good, let's go and do it. A year then passed by, and again: "Blood! I said, "okay, okay! So this time he had somebody interested in doing it, Hyena Records. Hyena decided that they were going to do the record and Vernon was going to produce it. So there we was; Vernon chose the band, he chose the music, he chose the spot. It was the first time I was produced [by someone else] since I made Tales of Captain Black; that was produced by Ornette Coleman. I didn't have to do anything but play. So that gig, all I had to do was come to the session and sit down in my chair and they would wait on me like I was an old man! I just put the words up in front of me and turned the microphone on and there I went.
AAJ: I guess you knew all the tunes.
JBU: Basically, I've heard all of those songs, one way or another. And that's what made it so easy, because except for a fewa couple I refused to do, but [Reid] chose the right ones. He chose the ones he thought I might already know from a child [laughing]. You know how you can have songs in your head that you already know? And ain't never listened to them before? That's how that record was. All those songs, I heard them so many times. "Little Red Rooster. And they were good songs, as far as I'm concerned. He didn't tell me ahead of time; I didn't know what the songs were until three days before the session. I didn't look at the music until I got to the session. Sothat's how that came out: Vernon Reid. Thanks to Vernon. But it was good, though, because it was like I was taking a big musical examination. Like all my life I've been just studying the way I want, and doing like I want, but then I had this test: to do these twelve songs that were written by somebody else. I said, "oh, man, I got to pass this test! [laughing]
AAJ: The blues examination.
JBU: The blues exam.
AAJ: That's a tough one!
JBU: That's a tough one. If you can't pass the blues exam, you should give up your musician license.
AAJ: Yeah, you've wasted your life and it's time to just watch TV. They are good songs and I like all your versions. The only tune I didn't know previously from Memphis Blood is "Death Letter, which I think is by Son House.
JBU: Yeah, Son House. Boy, he was wild. I saw him in a movie; he was killin' it! Yeah, he was a hard man.
AAJ: I like the band that's on those two albums. Vernon's great, but there's also Charles Burnham, who you go back with a long ways.
JBU: That's where I was lucky. The lucky part was that Vernon chose the band, but I'd already played with these guys before. They've been playing with me for a while, except for Vernon and the organ player.
AAJ: I think before those CDs, you'd been thought of first and foremost as a guitaristeven though you've been singing as far back as the Southern Sons, the gospel group you were in as a kid. But those band albums show off what a great singer you are. I think you sing "Ghetto Child as well as anyone has, and I listened to Wolf's version of "Little Red Rooster a couple days ago, and your vocals stand up to his. Now do you think of yourself as a singer, or a guitarist who sings?
JBU: No, no, singing and playing music are two different things to me. I can only sing the blues, probably. But playing guitarI don't know what I can play.
AAJ: Well, you've already played everything!
JBU: Yeah! I really, really refer to myself as a guitarist. But vocals are necessary sometime. Somebody should do it. Because at first, we always had a singer in the band. I used to try to hire singing in my early times in the band. I would always sing one or two songs on a record at least. But I really separate the two, singing from playing, simply because I can't sing anythingI don't sing no opera [laughing]. The singing I'm doing is storytelling. The blues is about the only thing I can sing.
AAJ: Let's talk about your great new CD Birthright, which is just you and your guitar. All right, Vernon Reid talked you into doing Memphis Blood. Did he talk you into this one?
JBU: No, this record is me rebelling and saying that I am not doing any more cover songs. That's it; I'm finished with singing cover-song blues. If I was going to [record] some songs, I'd do my own songs. It was my retreat back to my own music. I would never do another cover-song albumwell, you can't say never, but I hope I don't have to take no more musical exams. I want to continue on with what I've been doing all the time. Because my [own] music was blues. The blues, see, people don't want to look at it right. They don't realize that blues is an ingredient. And it's in everything. You can put it in all music, all kind of music. Blues is in everything. So that ingredient is there, and you can make it stand alone, it'll stand alone, too. But it's in other things, and I've been doing that forever. I don't have to make it stand alone just to prove that I am bluesy.
AAJ: Or because it's a gig. So most of the songs on this album are your own tunes. Have you had these for a while or did you write them shortly before recording?
JBU: Some I had before and I made a few new ones. But I'm always writing songs, stories. It's just something you do; I don't know, it's nothing I try, it just happens. I sit down and think about something and I write it down.
AAJ: The blues was the bad music in your home when you were growing up, right?
JBU: Well, it wasn't in there! It wasn't in the house! Whether it was good or not, it never got in the door, because my folks were definitely gospel people. Nothing else existed. When I was a child, we were tutored into being gospel people. That's how I grew up: gospel, the church, and I was the Sunday school treasurer [laughing] until I finished high school. I kept the money for the Sunday school. That means that I was there every Sunday. Can't be the treasurer and not there.
AAJ: On your song "Take My Music Back to the Church, it's as if you're making a statement that not only is blues not bad, guess what, it's good: "the soul of the man for sure. What was so wrong about blues music when you were younger?
JBU: Well, if you're playing in church, as long as your story is about Jesusyou have no problem. But don't you get up in the church and start singing about your baby and how you felt and what you were doing last night. They would put you out of church no matter what you were playing. I don't really know, but I was singing in church, and we had more blues in it, and it was funky, and soulful everything. Old ladies would jump up and shout, that shit. That was on! But the words, the story lines, were about Jesus. And in blues, with the guitar, once the guys started playing the slide, glass bottles, throwin' it down on the floor and playing it with your teeth, behind your back [laughing], it kind of pulled it away from the church. Because you can't really do that in the church; people start looking at you real funny [laughing].
AAJ: Well, the tritone has always been known as the devil's interval.
JBU: Well, I didn't know that about the tritone. [Thoughtfully] Devil's interval. Tritone. I'm going to check that out! But what I do is tune my guitar different, to make it impossible to get some of those forbidden sounds, you know what I'm sayingto tune it away from that tritone. I've got that unison sound, where everything is humming by the gauges of the string instead of notes. It kind of changed the way that you have to play. 'Cause certain things you play on guitar, you really get that gut sound. So the guitar tuning kind of eliminated that sound. So once you get that, it's sounding peaceful and in harmony.
AAJ: So you're using that nonstandard tuning on, say, "Where Did All the Girls Come From on the new CD?
AAJ: That's one of my favorites. That's a sad and beautiful song.
JBU: Hmm, well, okay, okay. Yeah, I'm using that same tuning on it; it's just that I call it unison tuning, meaningI'm trying to play the guitar in the way it was made, with the one string. Making all the strings in unison, which is a continuation of that one string.
AAJ: This is the same tuning you invented when you were with Ornette?
AAJ: So you've been working this concept for a while.
JBU: Yeah, forever.
AAJ: I think that's what makes this new record so unique-sounding. The album's got two instrumentalsif you don't count the "secret flute song that's at the end of the CD. One of them, "High Yellow, really feels like something only you could write; there's a really harmolodic feeling to it.
JBU: Oh, yeah. Definitely harmolodic there. I did that one in regular tuning, though. I tuned the guitar in regular tuning and played itit's a blues, but it might not sound like a blues. It's hidden, incognitothe blues incognito [laughing]. But it's definitely expressing the harmolodic systemfor the guitar. Playing everything from the melody and not the scale patterns or anything like that.
AAJ: Your cover of "I Ain't Superstitious on Birthright sounds like something only you could play. Your style's completely unique to you. Do you think your guitar playing has changed over the last twenty years?
JBU: Well, I'm just hoping not to lose the inspiration and the energy. The energy to pull on them strings! The older you getI guess you lose momentum. Sometimes I listen to music that I played, like in the eighties. And the shit was so hot! And I'll tell you, I wonder if I could do that again. I don't want to even try to see if I can do that the same. Are You Glad to Be in America, Free Lancing, Black Rockthose records. Those records were the intro to what I was supposed to do, I think. And I think I've gone farther on and sort of dissected the whole thing. I don't know if that made it better or worse, but at least I could find out what the inside of it wasand the inside of it was for me to be the incognito blues man [laughing].
And I don't have to worry about going back to where I was. Just about going forward, to do something different, and to take that guitar and play in that unison, totally away from the regular tuning. But I can play that way too, in that regular tuning also; I've learned to play the same way in whatever tuning I'm in. But at least when I'm tuned to something, it becomes impossible to make certain things happen. If I'm tuned in that unison thing, and it's something outside the church, it's cause I say the wrong words; not because of the guitar. Of course, with that [unison] tuning, I might play something, and you'd say, "oh, my goodness, get him out of here!
AAJ: Yeah, well, they said that about Ornette too. People get nervous when they hear things they haven't heard before.
JBU: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
AAJ: I like "White Man's Jail. I love how much space there is in it, and how its time shifts and changesyou're not constrained by drummer's time. Do you like this new freedom of playing alone like you do on this record?
JBU: Man, I'm going to tell you something I ain't never said before. I found out that when a guitar can play without that bass, it's the only way the guitar can advance. The guitar hasn't advanced beyond Jimi Hendrix because of the Fender bass, the electric bass. [Laughing] Don't write that down!
AAJ: I am definitely writing it down; it's the greatest thing I've ever heard. What do you mean?
JBU: The guitar hasn't been able to advance because that electric bass is a guitar. It's just a bass guitar. When it's playing at the same time as the lead guitar, one has to lay back for the other. So you can't really, fully express yourselfwhen you've got these two guys going at the same time. You have to leave room for the other. But when the guitar can express itself without having that guitar-bass going, it can play that bass itself, which might be a little harder, but the guitar can become more free. Not restricted with time. If you're not restricted by the time, that doesn't mean that the music is messed up. One thing about blues: blues is harmolodic, it is free. The first free music that we had in this country that was accepted was blues. It was free, you could sing, "oh baby, stop and make a sandwich, start playingthey were doing some free stuff!
AAJ: Yeah, you get a measure that's three beats long, then one that's seven
JBU: Yeah! The blues style was totally free. And this was going on the most when the guitar was played as a solo instrument. But then they got the bass on it and it got confined. So I took the same record you got, the solo record, and I put Charlie Burnham on the violin, Warren Benbrow on the drums, and played that same concept, that solo concept, with those brothers playing with me. And by not having the bass on it, I was able to keep the solo concept goingplus had somebody playing with me, but wasn't constricted by anything.
AAJ: It's a breakthrough.
JBU: That's what I'm telling you.
AAJ: So this is how you're gigging?
JBU: I'm trying, yeah. I'm doing as many gigs as I can do that way, the ones where I'm doing blues. I don't always do that. I do some gigs that are blues gigs, where we're playing at a blues club. So with that kind of club, I want to start using these guys; I don't really want to play solo. I'll play solo sometime, if I think it's necessary, but basically I want to get a band on that style, with that freedom of solo. That'll be the next place to go.
AAJ: Yeah, that sounds like the next place.
JBU: There is another place to go. People think we can't, but we can go further. People just have to stop restricting each other, tying each other up with these instruments. So I think the guitar has a chance to make one more step. We just played on this festival, Meltdown, the Patti Smith Meltdown. The last day, they did a Jimi Hendrix thing, and everybody played Jimi Hendrix music. I took that group and played two Jimi Hendrix songs: "I Don't Know and "Machine Gun. And man, it was amazing, how it sounded without having the bass on it. The way I was playing the guitar Jimi Hendrix didn't play the guitar that way because he didn't play the bass and the rhythm and all that shit at once. But it seemed to me that Charlie was playing the top; he was where the guitar usually would be. And the guitar was playing something that the guitar don't usually play.
AAJ: Because you're down below him.
AAJ: Well, you have to record this group.
JBU: I want to record it so bad. The last guy who did itMuddy Waters kind of took a band and put it on that solo style. The Chicago blues band is Muddy Waters' invention, you know.
AAJ: Yeah, electric blues.
JBU: Right. And that same thing can happen again. But without that electric bass guitar. I'm telling you, there's another kind of freedom in there.
AAJ: Well, you've already innovated so much, and it sounds like you're still going forward, making styles up. Before we end, I love the solo flute you tacked on as an unlisted track at the end of the Birthright CD. What made you put that on the record?
AAJ: Well, you see, the secret of my whole thing is the flute, because I always use the flute to do everything. The flute signifies everything for me to do. I have to play it on the flute. If I can play it on the flute, I'm in business. I have to check it out with the flute. What I keep with me all the time is my flute and my harmonica.
AAJ: So if you have a song you're writing, you try it out on the flute?
JBU: Oh, yeah. I write a lot of things on the flute. All the melodies. "High Yellow : I checked it out on the flute. Play it on the guitar, then play it on the flute to finalize what it's going to be.
AAJ: In terms of melody, you can't fake it on the flute.
JBU: Yeah, yeah. And I use the flute because it's easier to read with the flute than with the guitar, too! For me, anyway; when I have to read notes, I read them on the flute.
Selected discography as a leader:
Birthright (Hyena, 2005)
No Escape from the Blues(Hyena, 2003)
Blueblood (Innerhythmic, 2001)
Memphis Blood (Label M, 2001)
Forbidden Blues (DIW, 1998)
Music Speaks Louder Than Words: Plays the Music of Ornette Coleman (Koch, 1997)
Harmolodic Guitar with Strings (DIW, 1993)
Blues Preacher (DIW, 1992)
Black and Blues (DIW, 1990)
Blues All Night (In+Out, 1989)
Phalanx (Moers Music, 1986)
Odyssey (Columbia, 1983)
Black Rock (Columbia, 1982)
Free Lancing (Columbia, 1981)
Tales of Captain Black (DIW, 1978)
Revealing (In+Out, 1977)