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James Blood Ulmer: There is Another Place to Go

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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.
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, Birthright—which 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 music—actually, 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 blues—undercover. 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 few—a 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. So—that'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.

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