Trying to classify guitarist James Blood Ulmer just doesn't work. The best term I've seen to describe his music had to be invented: avant-gutbucket.
Ulmer came into prominence in the avant-garde jazz scene of the 1970s when he was closely associated with saxophonist-composer Ornette Coleman. But Ulmer's brand of free jazz had generous portions of blues, funk, and rock mixed in. Since then he has built a cult following through a range of albums, all of which have an experimental edge.
Ulmer has kept a foot in the avant-garde as a mainstay in the Music Revelation Ensemble, creating albums and performing with players like saxophonist David Murray. But his two most recent CDs, Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions and No Escape From the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions, are among the most accessible of his career. Both are masterpieces of raw, unbridled blues, way over the top from the word go. Tunes like Willie Dixon's "Spoonful" and "Back Door Man" are taken right back to where they came from.
The CDs were both recorded at legendary studios: Sun in Memphis and Electric Lady in New York. And both were produced by Vernon Reid, a guitarist known for his work with Living Colour.
"It was his idea," Ulmer says. "He thought it would be good for me to try doing cover songs. I never did cover songs before. I always did my music, which I thought was blues in the beginning anyway, so I kind of just dived right in."
The music on these albums may have been recorded in the 21st century, but Ulmer's gut-wrenching vocals and fiery guitar makes it sound like something Alan Lomax might have stumbled upon decades ago in a long-lost southern juke joint.
"Blues has drifted away from what the original concept was," Ulmer says. "That's my take on it."
Ulmer and Reid are doing their part to bring it back to its roots. All of the arrangements and backing musicians on his recent albums contribute to the authenticity. There is even a tap-dance break by Maya Smullyan Jenkins on No Escape's "Bright Lights, Big City." And his raucous renditions of tunes like "Little Red Rooster" on Memphis Blood should have everyone throwing away their sanitized blues albums.
"I used to sing 'Little Red Rooster' in a band as a teenager," Ulmer says. "It's a song that the real blues guitar players, they used to make the guitar sound like what they were singing about. If they were singing about a hound dog, they'd try to make it sound like a hound dog. If they were singing about a chicken, the guitar starts acting like a chicken. It's like they were playing a talking guitar, and the guitar would describe what they were singing about. So it's changed in that respect. Anything close to the original sound would be much better for me."
Ulmer's own roots reside more in the realm of gospel. As a boy he was in a gospel group with his father; later he was in the Southern Sons. And he doesn't believe that chapter of his musical life is closed.
"I never made a gospel album; I would like to," he says. "In fact, I would like to find the old Southern Sons and make a gospel record. I've been trying to do that but I haven't been successful yet. I'm still hoping I can get them together."
The Blood Brothers, another group Ulmer was involved with before he arrived on the national scene, was an organ trio along the lines of Jimmy Smith's or Jack McDuff's. His guitar playing in that 1960s group was more in the traditional rhythm style of Freddy Green.
"It was the very first time guitar players really got a chance to play," he says. "Before that, guitar players were playing background music."
Ulmer's career changed direction in 1972, when Coleman's drummer, Billy Higgins, introduced him to the avant-garde saxophonist.
"We got together and started playing," Ulmer says. "He was trying to incorporate the guitar into his music at that point."
Coleman and Ulmer turned out to be kindred spirits. Ulmer fit right into some of the experimental music Coleman was working on, including his concept of harmolodics, which emphasized the creation of harmonies through simultaneous melodies played on different instruments.
"I was a natural harmolodic player," says Ulmer, who had his own unconventional ideas, including tuning all of the strings of his guitar to one note. "It was based on a natural guitar. The guitar was basically a one-string instrument. When you tune all the strings to one note it's like playing a one-string instrument. That's my concept of playing the guitar in its original form."
Ulmer's latest album was done in the studio made famous by Jimi Hendrix, who, in his own way, was as experimental as Coleman.
"I didn't think about him when he was alive," Ulmer says. "I was more drawn to saxophone because when I was coming up guitar didn't have an outlet. They would play him on acid-rock stations at four or five in the morning. I didn't focus on guitar, I focused on the horns because they were the most vibrant players in music. The only guitar player who was well known up until I was almost 30 years old was Wes Montgomery. Nobody talked about Jimi Hendrix at that point. What he did that helped me out was he made it possible to take a guitar, bass, and drums and go out and make some money. He brought the guitar to another state, as far as taking it out of the background."
If he didn't listen to much Hendrix, what was he listening to?
"I don't listen to music, man. I play music," Ulmer says. "You can't listen to music, not if you're going to try to create music. You hear music all the time. But I've been listening to my own music for so long and trying to develop it more and more and the only way you can develop it is you've got to listen to it. I've played with some really great musicians, and listening to my own music and listening to the players on it has fascinated me."
Ulmer is so insulated from the music of others that he is totally unaware of the influence his music had on groups like Tortoise and Ui in the mid-'90s.
Ulmer's latest incarnation as a blues singer is likely to win him even more of a following. Singing was nothing new for him, but it's suddenly front and center on his last two albums.
"I sing half the time and I don't sing half the time," he says. "Before I made the blues records, I'd put a song or two on my records but they were mostly instrumentals. I feel like I was getting much better-known for playing the guitar."
Reid has plans to record Ulmer's next album at another legendary studio, Abby Road. There's no shortage of irony in that, considering that the Beatles were first drawn to rock 'n' roll through American blues and r&b. Could Ulmer see himself doing any Beatles songs?
"I hope not," Ulmer laughs. "I don't know what their songs are. The only thing about me doing a song is what the song is about. I'm really interested to know what the song is about, and that way I can feel whether I can deliver it or not."
I couldn't let Ulmer go without asking him how he earned his name.
"I never would tell nobody my name," says Ulmer, who will perform solo at the Rochester International Jazz Festival. "They'd say, 'Hey, Blood! What's up, Blood?' It probably came from Youngblood. You get older, they just call you Blood."
I tell him the name conjures the raw, cut-to-the-bone quality of his music.
"That ain't the name," Ulmer says, "that's me!"
James Blood Ulmer plays Milestones, 170 East Avenue, on Wednesday, June 9, at 6:30 and 10 p.m., as part of the Rochester International Jazz Festival. Free with Club Pass. $15 tickets available at the venue, space permitting. www.rochesterjazz.com
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