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Published: 2005/07/07
by Chris Gardner

Birthright – James Blood Ulmer

Hyena Records 9335

I generally avoid press kits. The cleverly compiled little beasties have a tendency to hem you in, to guide you toward a specific kind of review, to lead you to the "important" aspects of the work, to lay down boundaries outside which your ruminations should not wander. For a lazy reviewer, it's
a godsend. You can cobble together your review without actually having to invest any time listening to the record itself, which explains the pervasive commonality of most reviews. For whatever reason, I couldn't resist this time. I gobbled up the press kit and even sought out other reviews of
Ulmer's work. As a result, I have to divest myself of a number of borrowed phrases, facts, and ideas before I get down to business. The following paragraph then is the encapsulated review I could write from the press kit alone.

After years exploring the outer reaches of music in Ornette Coleman's free-jazz and Harmolodic ensembles as well as in his own fusion projects, James Blood Ulmer brings his bizarrely tuned (4 As and 2 Es) black Gibson Birdland to bear upon the blues. Under
the guiding hand of producer Vernon Reid, Ulmer continues the critically acclaimed exploration of the blues he began on the Grammy-nominated Memphis Blood with slight variation: this time, he’s all alone. Each of these unaccompanied tracks was committed to tape on the first or second take, preserving both the spontaneity and the integrity of Ulmer’s work. Previously dubbed the missing link between Wes Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix, this Ulmer feels more like the post-modern step-grandchild of Robert Johnson, deconstructing and honoring the blues in a way that would initially shock and eventually delight the music’s forefathers.

There – that feels better. Now on with the show.

From the first track, this album feels important. Ulmer announces his intention to "use the concept of the blues to feel my way around," and then he does exactly that. After years of virtually unlimited freedom, James Blood Ulmer is attacking the blues, one of America's most constraining musical
forms, a form bound by not only sense, sound, and shape but by subject matter, by time, and by rhythm. But Ulmer ignores much of the redundant history that has ossified the blues, which slides far too often now into formulaic self-parody. By beginning with "the concept of the blues" rather than the present incarnation of the blues, he puts himself in a position to place his stamp on the music in its rawest form, falling closer to Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf than the pajama-sportin' B.B. King of today.

Time for Ulmer is merely a suggestion. His unaccompanied explorations wander on and off time, his gravelly warble often but not always synching up with his guitar. While a renowned guitarist, it is often Ulmer's voice here that jumps out. "Gravelly warble" is as close as I'm going to get, and that's miles off. His voice is strikingly powerful and as individual as they come, and he puts it to work. He gets personal on "Geechee Joe" about his grandfather who "didn't want to work for the white man" and political on "White Man's Jail." He gets loose and inventive on the instrumentals "Love Dane Rag" and the shattered "High Yellow" and gets downright nasty (with a menacingly spectral laugh) on the album closing "Devil's Got to Burn." It's all blues and all Ulmer, which should be a contradiction somehow. But with each highly personalized step, each off-kilter stroke, he paradoxically places himself on the fringes of and directly at the heart of the blues.

Ulmer opens the album emoting, "I'm gonna take my music back to the church, where the blues was misunderstood." The church sent the blues forth (or cast the blues out), and Ulmer brings it back to its roots fractured and mutated but no less resonant than the full-throated gospel from which it
sprang. It's a helluva feat and a helluvan album.

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