Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions – James Blood Ulmer
Label M 495728
This disc may surprise some who know James Blood Ulmer's name from jazz
circles, but close inspection reveals that he has been moving in this
direction for a while. Ulmer is best known as one of the two significant
artists to emerge in Ornette Coleman's "harmolodic" school of
avant/jazz/funk, the other being Ronald Shannon Jackson, whose most famous
onetime sideman, Vernon Reid, produced and plays on this outing.
Since his stint at Columbia in the late 70's/early 80's (culminating with
the cult classic "Odyssey"), Ulmer has often ventured into straight blues,
and "Memphis Blood" takes this as far as possible. It's a collection of
mid-century blues standards, most of which should be familiar to anyone with
a passing knowledge of pre-MTV rock. And while Ulmer is mostly known for
his eccentric guitar playing, this release focuses on his guttural vocals.
The opener, Spoonful, leaves one anticipating a warped excursion,
with a patented Ulmer guitar onslaught at the beginning and a bizarre
reharmonization of the familiar riff. However, these oddities fade quickly
— this is straight-shooting stuff, though you won't be hearing it on VH1.
Charles Burnham's violin, a holdover from "Odyssey", is one of the few
Clearly, though, strangeness isn't the point here. Instead, Ulmer and Reid
apparently intend to remind us of the influence and scope of this seemingly
limited music. And they do – just as the lyrics range from the bravado of
I Just Want To Make Love To You to the doomsaying of Evil and
the self-deprecation of Too Lazy To Work, Too Nervous To Steal, the
playing makes clear how this style links the simplicity of ZZ Top to the
progressiveness of Mahavishnu or the Dead to the oddness of Captain
Beefheart or… James Blood Ulmer.
Pick up "Odyssey" (recently reissued on CD) first, but this release provides
both entertainment and some food for thought about Ulmer and the blues.