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James "Blood" Ulmer Interview in Offbeat Magazine for Congo Mombo #3

JAMES BLOOD ULMER: No Escape From The Blues

Offbeat Magazine- November, 2003

The September release of James Blood Ulmer's No Escape From the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions is a milestone event in this centennial Year of the Blues. Though Ulmer is best known for his guitar work with Ornette Coleman's revolutionary Prime Time band a generation ago, the innovative guitarist is one of the most accomplished blues players in history and is one of the few musicians to successfully apply Coleman's harmolodic approach to playing blues.

During his career the multifaceted Ulmer has played in gospel groups, vocal group R&B bands, organ trios and avant-garde jazz lineups. He is widely considered to be the most innovative electric guitarist after Jimi Hendrix, although his career predates Hendrix. He crossed over to a rock audience with the influential Tales of Captain Black, Odyssey and Black Rock albums, serving as a prime influence on the Black Rock Coalition. All the while he has fronted his own blues bands.

After years of playing his harmolodic blues, Ulmer has turned to traditional blues performance on No Escape From the Blues, first on the 2001 release Memphis Blood and now on The Electric Lady Sessions. Both records were produced by Ulmer disciple Vernon Reid. Ulmer played on an all-star blues lineup at the first Ponderosa Stomp, then returned this year with his own band.

It's ironic that this record is being heralded as your return to the blues. You've always played blues, dating back to your organ trio work in 1964 with Hank Marr and the John Patton album Accent On the Blues.

They can say you're playing jazz or whatever but you can't escape from the blues. If people think I don't play blues they think wrong. It's just that I haven't played every category of the blues. I just haven't played the category they heard about.

How did producer Vernon Reid approach you about the No Escape From the Blues project?

This is the first time since Ornette produced "Tales of Captain Black" that I've allowed someone to produce me. I had no idea before I went into the project that the music was gonna be that way. It wasn't my band, it wasn't my music for the most part, the concept had little to do with me as a player. The idea was to feature me as a singer. Vernon prepared the garden and I just sat in as a performer. As a singer, not as a player, not as a composer. That's what's different about this music.

But you do play guitar on the record.

I play guitar on the record, but it's traditional blues, not my own music. When I was a kid listening to this music, guitar players didn't take long solos. They didn't play 15 choruses of a guitar solo. They played the guitar that had something to do with the song they wassingin'. If they was singin' about chickens they make the guitar sound like a chicken. If they was singin' about some cattles that's what they make the guitar do. If they was singin' about a freight train they make the guitar sound like a freight train. The guitar described what they was talkin' about, it wasn't like bein' a so-called "guitarist." That's the kind of blues thing I tried to stick close to on the record, I tried to not be the "guitarist" on this record. I'm singin' blues songs. I'm tryin' to stick to that form, where the guitar player wasn't trying to show his expertise but was playin' the song. Even though there were some good licks passed through Muddy Waters and Elmore James and all those guys, I don't think they thought they was "guitarists" quote, although they played the guitar. I think they thought of themselves more as a singer, or a messenger, you know what I'm sayin', someone who's tellin' a story about someone until you get the message.

I look at it like this: I was lucky, because the music that Vernon chose is music I was brought up on. It's like hillbilly music. If you grew up where I did in South Carolina in the 1940s, that's all you heard on the radio was hillbilly music, country music. And you would know it whether you ever played it or not, like elevator music. And blues was that way to me-I heard the blues played in my neighborhood even though I was playin' somethin' else. It was a part of your existence. The stories of the blues, you kind of lived them, because those were the stories. It wasn't the music of a player or even a composer because the best composer is not the person who expressed this music in the first place. It took a spokesman to express the stuff. It was quite interestin' because I had to break it down real deep because traditional blues, as they call it, I never had a chance to sit in the house and practice that. I wasn't allowed to do that because when I was a kid, from six-years-old to 18-years-old, I was singin' in a quartet, or in church choirs, until I left my father's house. I used to play the guitar and sing with the quartet. My dad showed me how to play the guitar, I guess I started playin' when I was about nine-years-old.

So how did you come to hear someone like Robert Johnson?

I never knew nothin' about Robert Johnson. Robert Johnson was a big city man. Down south where we were there was no outlet for the blues, you had to go north to do that. Everything we had was gospel. You had to leave the south if you wanted to do anything but gospel. If you wanted to do blues you better get outta Dodge back then. Them brothers had to leave town to play, just like I had to leave. If you play church music you can stay there. That's what it seemed like to me. You didn't hear about B.B. King bein' famous in Orangeburg South Carolina.

So you went to Pittsburgh when you were 19. What kind of stuff were you playing then?

I wasn't a player. When I went to Pittsburgh I stopped gospel so I didn't really have a music to play. So I started playing stuff that I heard-blues, at first I mainly played with the doo-wop guys. I played with the Del Vikings, the Savoys.

So your early influences were mostly vocal. That comes through on this new album. The way you sing "Who's Been Talkin'" is really striking, you kind of whisper it, telling a real bad story. You also did a great job on Johnny Copeland's "Ghetto Child."

That was hard for me because Johnny Copeland sang the shit out of "Ghetto Child." I said to Vernon "Wait a minute! How am I gonna sing this song better than the brother singin' the song?" He was sweet. So I sang it like it was a blues. It was a blues but I had to make it down, he sang it so sweet you could almost forget it was a blues. I'm sweet but I'm not that sweet! If you hear him sing you won't try to outsing this guy. I just had to come up with a whole 'nother sound.
If you sing it real blues, you don't have to worry about no competition. Everyone have their own blues style. If you're honest with that you don't have to worry about competin'. It's you.

Yeah, a lot of times you hear people singing blues and you're aware they're copying somebody.

That's different.

When you did "Come On" were you familiar with Earl King's version, because it sounds more like the Hendrix version.

That's not Jimi's song. Earl King wrote the song but we did a version that Vernon liked. Jimi Hendrix recorded that version there, it was on "Electric Ladyland." I was axing Vernon why he had us doin' the Jimi Hendrix version, but it was because we was recordin' in that studio.

You played with Zigaboo Modeliste on South Delta Space Age. He's a very different kind of drummer than you usually play with. How did you like working with him?

How did I like working with him? He's one of the originals, man. I was glad to get a chance to play with him. He's definitely the master of funk, Zigaboo, that's how he plays, he's great with that, man. I liked that record, we had some good songs on that record.

You've played both versions of the Ponderosa Stomp, one of the greatest assemblages of roots music in history. It's a true illustration of music without boundaries.

This year I didn't get a chance to do what I was supposed to do, but last year it was exciting to go there after making that Memphis Blood record and play with the guys who was on the original versions of the records, guys from Muddy Waters' band and other bands. There was a whole lotta bands and everybody had to play with everybody. It was interesting to see the guy who was trying to put it all together. This year I took a trio down there with me and I didn't play traditional blues per se. I was supposed to play traditional blues but I didn't get a chance to do it. I didn't play with the Sun Ra band but two of the musicians from that band sat in with me. That was good.

On this record did you have to use different tunings than when you're playing harmolodic music?

That wasn't about the playing. I was trying to sing. See, the music I was playing before was blues harmolodics. The blues I'm playing with Vernon is traditional blues.

So in your shows you can play both styles.
That's what I'm insisting on doing. I'm not gonna stop playing my music to play traditional blues. I'll play traditional blues and my music. The last record I made of my music was Blue Blood. My next record will be my music again. I'm not gonna stop playing my music.

In fact you do play your music here, with "Are You Glad To Be In America."

I wanted to play the harmolodic solo guitar version of that for the record. The other song I thought came off well was the harmolodic guitar player playing the blues, which was "Satisfied." That's my idea of a harmolodic blues song, where the guitar has its own sound but it's tellin' the story with the guitar and not tryin' to make the guitar the lead of the story you're tellin'.

"Are You Glad To Be In America" is an unanswered question. I have heard no one on television say yet "I am glad to be in America." I'm waitin' for them to say that. Every time I turn on the television I'm waitin' for someone to axe that question. That song is all music together. I never realized it could be a blues song too, but there it is. I sang it as a 12 bar blues. With a bridge! I said if it works as a blues it's still unanswered yet, so I'm hopin' somebody says "Yeah, I'm glad to be in America, James Blood."

Do you stay in touch with Ornette Coleman? He played a great gig earlier this year at Jazz Fest. Are you following what he's doing?

You mean the music? He's playing harmolodics. That's what he's doin'.

But every show is different.

No. Every show is harmolodic. Heh, heh heh. Ornette Coleman shows is harmolodics. He don't play no different shit. Coleman plays Coleman. He's like Miles Davis. Miles Davis didn't care who the fuck played with him, he played Miles Davis. Heh, heh. I'm the same way. I don't give a shit.

-Interview by John Swenson


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