A June 1 Style record review gave an incorrect date for a performance by James Blood Ulmer at the Western Maryland Blues Festival in Hagerstown. His performance is Sunday, not tomorrow. (Published 6/3/2005)
More than three decades ago, James Blood Ulmer secured a dedicated cult following with his free-form jazz guitar wizardry. He delivered licks that helped composer/saxophonist Ornette Coleman pioneer "harmolodic" jazz, an unstructured music that emphasizes harmonics over chord structure and encourages musicians to dispense with the normal patterns of lead and rhythm instruments.
Later Ulmer performed with some of avant-garde jazz's top players, such as drummer Rashied Ali. Ulmer played on scores of albums. Most notably, he combined funk and free-form grooves on his explosive 1983 album "Odyssey."
In recent years, Ulmer, now 63, has abandoned harmolodics and free jazz to work within the structures of the blues, and has done so with critical, and a fair degree of commercial, success.
Ulmer's new CD, "Birthright," cements his standing as a leading interpreter of the blues. Reminiscent in spirit of blues legend Robert Johnson's seminal 1930s recordings, "Birthright" offers a transcendent and edgy performance by the guitarist.
The CD's 10 original tracks and two covers (Willie Dixon's "I Ain't Superstitious" and Lonnie Chatmon and Walter Vinson's "Sittin' on Top of the World") feature Ulmer's distinctive graveyard vocal stutter, well-crafted notes plucked and strummed on his black electric Gibson Birdland guitar, and lyrical phrasing delivered with power and sensitivity.
"Birthright" is Ulmer's first record without a backing band, and producer Vernon Reid (of the rock group Living Colour) has coaxed a live-sounding, spontaneous performance. Each song was recorded in one or two takes.
Born in 1942 in St. Matthews, S.C., Ulmer started to play the guitar at 7 with his father's gospel group, the Southern Sons. Accordingly, God and the Devil and their relationship with the blues receive much attention on "Birthright."
Fortunately, Ulmer has managed to avoid the "hellhound on my trail" cliches that swirl around the genre. Instead, he philosophizes on the CD's opening track, "Take My Music Back to the Church":
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.
"The Evil One," another supernatural conjuring, is a hypnotic track featuring crystal-clear, icy guitar notes and rough-hewn chords. The album's closer, "Devil's Got to Burn," proves chilling. Ulmer's demonic cackle throughout the song provides a memorable effect.
Ulmer's ode to his grandfather, "Geechee Joe," is easily the album's most sentimental track. The song emerges as an epic folk tale, and Geechee Joe, who was Ulmer's boyhood hero, is remembered with pride: "Hard workin' man who made a stand, because he didn't want to work for the white man."
With "Birthright," Ulmer's stripped-down blues proves authentic. Listening to this record is like watching an actor who normally performs with an ensemble cast take on the challenge of a one-man show, and succeed gracefully in connecting with the audience.
James Blood Ulmer is scheduled to perform Saturday at the Western Maryland Blues Festival in Hagerstown.