Photo: James Blood Ulmer at the 19th Annual Vision Festival | Credit: Joyce Jones/Sugabowl Photography.
Program note: We’re back on air for our final show on WBAI Radio!
The next show will air on Tuesday January 7, 2019 from 10:00 PM – 12 Midnight Eastern Standard Time on WBAI, 99.5 FM in the NYC metro area or streaming online at wbai.org. This broadcast will feature a 2016 rebroadcast of an interview with composer, guitarist and Harmolodic Blues man James Blood Ulmer, who is one of the artists lined up to be featured during the 2020 Winter Jazz Festival on January 11 along with the super ensemble Harriet Tubman. This will be our FINAL Suga’ broadcast over WBAI-FM.
James “Blood” Ulmer is one of the few exceptions — an outside guitarist who has forged a style based largely on the traditions of African-American vernacular music. Ulmer is an adherent of saxophonist/composer Ornette Coleman’s vaguely defined Harmolodic theory, which essentially subverts jazz’s harmonic component in favor of freely improvised, non-tonal, or quasi-modal counterpoint. Ulmer plays with a stuttering, vocalic attack; his lines are frequently texturally and chordally based, inflected with the accent of a soul-jazz tenor saxophonist. That’s not to say his sound is untouched by the rock tradition — the influence of Jimi Hendrix on Ulmer is strong — but it’s mixed with blues, funk, and free jazz elements. The resultant music is an expressive, hard-edged, loudly amplified hybrid that is, at its best, on a level with the finest of the Harmolodic school.
Ulmer began his career playing in funk bands, first in Pittsburgh (1959-1964) and later around Columbus, OH (1964-1967). Ulmer spent four years in Detroit before moving to New York in 1971. He landed a nine-month gig at the famed birthplace of bop, Minton’s Playhouse, and played very briefly with Art Blakey. In 1973, he recorded with the ex-John Coltrane drummer Rashied Ali and his Quintet on the Survival label. That same year, he hooked up with Ornette Coleman, whose concept affected Ulmer’s music thereafter. The guitarist’s recordings from the late ’70s and early ’80s exhibit a unique take on his mentor’s aesthetic. His blues and rock-tinged art was, if anything, more raw and aggressive than Coleman’s free jazz and funk-derived music (a reflection, no doubt, of Ulmer’s chosen instrument), but no less compelling from either an intellectual or an emotional standpoint. In 1981, Ulmer led the first of three record dates for Columbia, which helped to expose his music to a wider public. Around this time Ulmer began an association with tenor saxophonist David Murray, bassist Amin Ali, and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. As the Music Revelation Ensemble, this intermittent assemblage (with various other members added and subtracted) would produce a number of intense, free-blowing albums over a span of almost two decades.
Ulmer’s work has varied in quality over the years. In 1987, with the cooperative group Phalanx (George Adams, tenor sax; Sirone, bass; and Rashied Ali, drums), Ulmer drew successfully on the free jazz expressionism that made his name. His ’90s recordings with the Music Revelation Ensemble showed him still capable of playing convincingly in that vein.
Blood dug deeply into an investigation of the blues as the century turned. First he recorded Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions with guitarist Veron Reid both performing and producing. The album also starred veteran Ulmer sideman Charles Burnham on violin. In 2003, Ulmer issued No Escape From the Blues, recorded at Electric Lady studio. A thoroughly psychedlic funky take on the genre, Reid and Burnham were present in the same roles once more, and old friend Olu Dara stopped in to contribute as well. In 2005, Blood released Birthright, on Joel Dorn’s Hyena label. It is easily his most intimate recording. Completely solo in the studio (Reid once again produced), it contains ten orignals and two covers of classic reportoire and takes Blood’s blues journey to an entirely new level.
(Bio adapted from Allmusic.)
James Blood Ulmer will take the stage at the Winter Jazz Festival on Saturday, January 11, with doors opening at 7:00 p.m. at the Sultan Room, 234 Starr Street, Brooklyn. Follow our blog for a preview and additional Winter Jazz Fest coverage.
This program is hosted, engineered, produced, and edited by Joyce Jones. Listen for our On the Bandstand segment with NYC metro area appearances of Suga’ guests at the end of the first hour with Associate Producer Hank Williams.
Watch Ulmer in this 2019 live performance with bassist Bill Laswell!