James Blood Ulmer: There is Another Place to Go

Paul Olson By

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AAJ: So you're using that nonstandard tuning on, say, "Where Did All the Girls Come From on the new CD?

JBU: Yeah.

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, meaning—I'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?

JBU: Yeah.

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 instrumentals—if 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 it—it's a blues, but it might not sound like a blues. It's hidden, incognito—the blues incognito [laughing]. But it's definitely expressing the harmolodic system—for 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 get—I 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 Rock—those 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 was—and 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 changes—you'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 yourself—when 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 playing—they 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 going—plus had somebody playing with me, but wasn't constricted by anything.


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