James Blood Ulmer is in the midst of a career revival—an artistic renaissance if you will. A new generation of music fans have discovered his music, while simultaneously longtime fans from throughout his 40-year career have shown a renewed fascination with the iconoclastic genius. His previous two recordings, Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions and No Escape From The Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions led to much recognition, including a Grammy Award nomination, Rolling Stone Magazine “Best Album” honors, a performance at Martin Scorsese blues celebration concert at Radio City Music Hall and high profile appearances with the likes of Government Mule, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks. On Birthright, his latest studio album, Ulmer goes it alone. It’s just he and his guitar singing and playing 12 of the most stark, personal and spellbinding songs he’s ever recorded. The blues hasn’t sounded this fresh in a long, long time. It’s clearly the work of an American music legend continuing to reinvent himself, while remaining as relevant today as at any point in his long and distinguished career.
In a review of Robert Johnson: King of The Delta Blues Singers for Downbeat Magazine in 1962, music critic Martin Williams wrote: “The best blues deal in their own way with basic human experience, with things that all men in all times and conditions try to come to terms with.” And here, nearly 70 years after Robert Johnson’s mythical recording sessions that bared those infamous sides, James Blood Ulmer continues down the path that Williams quite eloquently described. Birthright is James Blood Ulmer’s first ever solo album. Just James Blood, alone, singing and playing his blues with his fears, demons, prayers and history all laid out before him. Once revered as a free jazz, black rock guitar master, Ulmer has come full circle, acknowledging the boy he once was who grew up playing guitar on his father’s knee in the segregated South, singing gospel in the Baptist church and struggling to find the balance between the Lord’s word and more earthly matters of the flesh. The 12 songs featured here, in each and every instance, are indeed James Blood Ulmer’s Birthright.
“I’m gonna take my music back to the church where the blues was misunderstood, some people think that it’s the song of the devil, but it’s the soul of the man for sure,” moans Ulmer on the album’s opener “Take My Music Back To The Church.” A precedent is immediately set. Ulmer is not about to take a lighthearted romp through tired blues clichés, but is instead committed to a soul-bearing transformation. If Ulmer’s two previous records, Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions, and No Escape From the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions, found him finally confronting history and exploring the songs of the great American blues forefathers, then on Birthright, Ulmer is submerging himself in a life’s worth of living the very experience, exploring its depths, searching for resolve and often reclaiming the music as his own.
The tale’s been told time and again of Ulmer’s ongoing conflict between his love for the raw, primal release offered by the blues and the deep-rooted guilt instilled by his mother who made clear to him while growing up that the blues was the devil’s music. This is a subject that’s referenced throughout Birthright. Ulmer is continually searching for a way to impart the blues with the notion of sanctity and redemption. On the snarling, slashing and guttural stomp of “The Evil One,” he declares “God called all of the Angels to show him what he had done, and they all bowed down to man except the devil, the jealous one.” It’s a story of Adam & Eve, God and the Devil, but where most post modern blues of the present day cites the devil because it’s a mainstay of the vernacular, Ulmer addresses it with no pretense. He means every word he sings.
James Blood Ulmer does not suffer fools gladly who spend countless hours in the studio trying to procure the perfect recording. Every track on Birthright was recorded in one and two takes. Fortunately, producer Vernon Reid (back to produce his third album for Ulmer) was a proponent of this approach. Ulmer would run the tune down once before letting the control room know he was ready to record. From that point on he’d seemingly transport himself to a different existential plane, rocking back and forth, audibly groaning, while excavating magical shards of tangled guitar notes from his black Gibson Birdland. The pairing of Ulmer’s voice and guitar, with all other instruments stripped away, is revealing in itself. His vocal phrasing, often behind the measure of his own rhythms, creates a counterpoint as distinct as any in the history of the blues—as timeless as Son House, Leadbelly and Lightnin’ Hopkins, yet informed by the past half century of jazz theory and set within his own inimitable guitar tuning.
Live On Stage:
This is going to be a short post, only have two things for you. Here's James Blood Ulmer with Allison Krause performing "Sitting On Top Of The World".....
And here he is Buck Cherry, Veron Reid (who is producing his new album) and David Barnes doing "Down In Mississippi" from the Scorsese documentary The Blues: Soul Of A Man...
For more on James Blood Ulmer head on over to his official website.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007