James Blood Ulmer's raw, aggressive guitar work with Ornette Coleman, Ronald Shannon Jackson, and others established him as one of the brightest lights in contemporary jazz. By adapting elements of rock (particularly Jimi Hendrix) and blues to Coleman's melodic language and incorporating bizarre alternate tunings, Ulmer, along with Sonny Sharrock and Derek Bailey, was one of the few early guitarists to find a voice in free jazz. With No Escape from the Blues, however, free jazz doesn't seem to be on Ulmer's mind these days.
The brainchild of producer and guitarist Vernon Reid, the album places Ulmer's guitar and gravelly but trembling voice in a wide range of blues-based styles, from Delta blues to Hendrix-style jams. The songs, ten covers of blues classics and two Ulmer originals, incorporate numerous blues sub-genres. "Goin' to New York," the opener, is straight country blues with Reid on banjo, Ulmer making his debut on acoustic guitar, and some great harmonica from Barnes. On the other hand, the organ-led cover of "Who's Been Talkin'," Ulmer drops his voice to a groaning whisper that sounds like Tom Waits at his friendliest over a tango rhythm.
Several tracks are distinguished as modern recordings only by the howling guitar work of Ulmer and Reid. Unfortunately, after Ulmer's angular but idiomatic solos, Reid veers dangerously close to overdriven stadium rock bombast on a few of these cuts.
If the connection to Jimi Hendrix wasn't clear from the studio, the band romps through Earl King's "Come On (Let the Good Times Roll)," which Hendrix covered on Electric Ladyland. Despite the looming shadow of Hendrix on this song, Ulmer's stuttering solo is all his own, and in fact Charles Burnham most closely captures the sound of Hendrix in his electric violin solo. It may be a sign of the times that, despite Ulmer's reputation for unfettered free jazz, this version of this song sounds unnaturally restrained when compared to Hendrix.
Ulmer's two originals, "Satisfy" and the bittersweet portrait "Are You Glad to Be in America," are definite highpoints and confirm his songwriting abilities. Though they are based in Delta blues, they are also the songs that most stretch that familiar framework with their halting acoustic guitar backing and Ulmer's rhapsodic improvising.
Hardcore free jazz fans will probably find little of interest in this recording. Ulmer's solos, while unconventional, are certainly not up to free jazz standards, and he improvises for only a few minutes total on the entire album. On the other hand, blues fans and more open-minded listeners are likely to disagree. Ulmer succeeds in injecting new life into a genre that is increasingly predictable, and suggests that in the future he might be evaluated as much for his blues as for his pioneering free jazz work.
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This review first appeared in All About Jazz: Los Angeles .
Personnel: James Blood Ulmer- guitar, vocals; Vernon Reid- guitar,
electric sitar, banjo; Leon Gruenbaum- piano, Hammond B-3,
Wurlitzer, Fender Rhodes, melodica; Charlie Burnham- electric
fiddle, mandolin; David Barnes- harmonica; Mark Petersonacoustic,
electric bass; Aubrey Dale- drums; Queen Esther- vocals;
Olu Dara- pocket trumpet; Maya Smullyan Jenkins- tap dancing;
John Kruth- tamboura