- GUITAR GREAT: James Blood Ulmer.
James Blood Ulmer is a torchbearer for a fiery brand of independent jazz-blues-funk-rock that reaches into the past and the future at the same time. Over two decades and counting, the experimental guitarist has released more than 20 albums that defy classification. Greg Tate, writing in the Village Voice, called him “the missing link between Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery on one hand, between P-Funk and Mississippi Fred McDowell on the other.”
On Saturday, Blood Ulmer and his Memphis Blood Blues Band come to Hendrix College's Staples Auditorium for a free concert at 7:30 p.m.
Contributor Charlie James spoke to James Blood Ulmer by phone last week about his gospel background, Ornette Coleman and the roots of “Blood.”
If we can go back in time for a little bit, Ornette Coleman plays on your 1978 LP, “Tales of Captain Black.” How did you start playing with Ornette?
Ornette produced that record, my first record. He played on it, too. I met Billy Higgins, Coleman's drummer, in Brooklyn. Him and me went into my little studio and played all night long. He told me I had to meet Coleman, so we went to his place, on 12th Street in Manhattan. That was in '72, and I stayed with him a little over a year, living there.
How did his Harmolodic theory affect your musical outlook?
It didn't. I mean, when I played with Ornette, he told me I was a natural harmolodic player, and you can't get no better than that.
A lot of critics and musicians have struggled with the concept — creating harmony and melody at the same time.
Most music in America has been watered down, but with harmolodics, they don't know what it is, so they can't ruin it. As soon as they figure out what it is, here comes the water [much laughter]. When you take a path like I'm trying to take, there's only a few musicians who can find the same idea while you're playing. To me it's not what you're playing, it's why you're playing it. Music isn't something I had a chance to choose to do. I was kind of thrown in. My daddy started me out playing music. He acted like it was a necessity.
You have one of the most original and recognizable sounds of all the guitar greats. There's no mistaking you for somebody else. Was it the guitar from the beginning?
Well, that's very kind of you to say. Yeah, playing guitar in a gospel group, a gospel quartet called the Southern Sons. The guitar was put into my hand. My daddy started me out playing guitar. My favorite guitar player was Wes Montgomery. I wanted to emulate him for a while. One of my main things now is to put out a record of the Southern Sons from back then, but I'm getting old and I wonder if anybody's listening.
I first became aware of you when “Are You Glad to be In America” hit the shops back in 1980. That album seems a bit prophetic now, with its questioning title and Mardi Gras cover photo. Now your most recent record, “Bad Blood in The City,” was recorded in 2007 in New Orleans. How did that come about, and how was the experience for you?
“Are You Glad to be In America” was one hell of a record. I was a real country boy at that time. With the recent records, Vernon Reid has been producing. You sit back and let the producer do what he does best, and when you do that you tend to perform better. You can really concentrate on what you perform. Vernon drove me crazy for about two years wanting to make a blues record. He told me my voice reminded him of those old blues singers from way back, so he wanted me to sing blues on the new record.
How did you find conditions in New Orleans?
Oh man, here were these people pretending nothing was wrong with New Orleans, when everything was wrong with it. People were trying to act like everything was all right, but it was miserable. I couldn't even think! I was really affected. I had written around 12 songs about New Orleans, and I was happy to see that five of those songs made it on the record, along with seven cover versions. I knew about the tensions and problems that were there, and some of those songs made it on the record.
When you started singing on your records, it was a revelation for me. It took this very complex and modern electric sound right back to the Delta blues in the most wonderful way. Was singing a decision you made when you signed with CBS in '81?
Yeah, I started singing on those records for CBS [“Freelancing,” “Black Rock” and “Odyssey”].
You have that voice. You're a natural.
That's what Vernon said.
You've recorded all over the country, including “The Sun Sessions,” from 2001. How was that experience, playing in that little room where Howlin' Wolf recorded?
I'd never seen those pictures on the wall there, with all those guys, Wolf and those guys. They had all those amps in the same room, playing at the same time. That's the way they used to do things.
Did you guys record live in that room, or were there overdubs?
Overdubs? I don't think so. We played it live.
Vernon Reid is accompanying you to Arkansas for your upcoming show at Hendrix Collage on Feb. 2. He seems like a great foil for your playing style.
I don't know anybody who plays like him. We have a good relationship playing together.
How many players are in your present band?
Seven. We've got violin, we've got organ and keyboards, harmonica, two guitars, bass, and drums.
Will you be singing?
Oh yeah. I'll be singing when I get there.
What advice would you give a young player coming up in the music business?
Oh man, I'd tell him that the music and the instrument are not the same thing. They've got to put the music in the instrument. The instrument might be wiser than the player, you know [laughter].
One last question. Where does the “Blood” in James Blood Ulmer come from?
My daddy's name was James, so I was the blood of James. James' blood. James Blood.
Well James, thank you very much for taking the time out to talk with me, and I'll see you at the show.
I'm looking forward to it.