JJ 09/92: James ‘Blood’ Ulmer: from the blues to harmolody and back again

JJ scribe Chris Sheridan once dismissed an Ulmer concert as representing a road-mender running amok. Simon Adams took a broader view. First published in Jazz Journal September 1992

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James Blood Ulmer

On February 2, 1992, the one-time enfant terrible of the jazz guitar – James ‘Blood’ Ulmer – was 50. Once memorably described as playing ‘like Son House taking a kitchen knife to a Steel National Dobro’, Ulmer has been at the forefront of jazz ever since he worked with Ornette Coleman back in the seven­ties. Born in South Carolina in 1942, Ulmer sang as a kid with gospel groups, played rock and roll and then jazz-funk, and during the mid-sixties worked with organist Hank Marr. By 1968, he was in Detroit, developing the abrasive, angular style he was to become noted for. He moved to New York in 1971, linked up with drummer Rashied Ali and through him Coleman, and is currently performing with a blues trio.

In recent years, Ulmer has been involved with two groups – the Music Revelation Ensemble with David Murray, and Phalanx with George Adams. Both are rip-roaring affairs at the cutting edge of improvised music – Phalanx the funkier of the two – so it comes as some surprise to find Ulmer fronting a rhythm and blues trio. It is, however, a natural development of his work to date.

I’m a blues child, a blues singer. I love the blues. When I met Cole­man I learned the way he played, I learned that system he was talking about, I learned that music to play with him. But my music was always bluesy’

‘I have been playing this music for years. The Music Revelation Ensemble was designed to let me continue my orig­inal idea of creating educated music and I will always try to pursue that as a guitar player. But hiding behind the guitar all the time is not the most profitable stand – sometimes you have to realise that you have to come from behind and try to identify yourself.’

This does not mean that the other two groups will now fold.

‘Phalanx is a collective group that was formed by me, drummer Rashied Ali, and bass player Sirone, who irritated the whole Phalanx band with saxophonist George Adams. It was a collective band and we still concentrate on working that group. It is a good band, but it is not my band. Meanwhile 1 will still make records with the Music Revelation Ensemble, but I have not as yet made a tour with that particular ensemble. It is not necessarily my biggest desire to tour with that group, but I would like at least to play about four or five concerts a year with that band.’

David Murray is very busy, George Adams is very busy, you are busy, it must be difficult to pull the group together.

‘Yes, but it’s been working out, every­one has time, and we all seem to come together somehow.’

Two saxophonists

How do you find working with Murray and Adams? They have very different styles.

‘When we work together, they play my music. It is good that they have the same energy yet play so different. That makes it more interesting. I have been playing with George and David for years – David started in my band a long time ago – so it is very easy for both of them.’

You and Murray first recorded together on Are You Glad To Be In America? (Ulmer’s classic 1980 set that first brought him widespread attention). How did Mur­ray and you get together?

‘I met David when he was 18 years old and had just come to New York. I heard him play and asked him to come and play with me. It was 1974 or so.

‘Out of all the musicians who have played with me and played my music, David Murray is the only one who invites me to play on his records. I have played on one of Arthur Blythe’s records, but that was set up by CBS, and I have also played on a set by Grant Calvin Weston, my drum­mer. Other than that, no-one else has called me to play with them. Murray has actually hired me twice and I have hired him a tri­llion times and that is how it is. I keep ask­ing him about the record dates!’

How about George Adams?

‘I have a long relationship with him. I met George when we played in the Hank Marr band together – that was in the sixties. We go back a long way.’

A new debut

The Revealing album (reviewed JJI Jan­uary 1991) has just been released, with George Adams on tenor. Previously unheard of, it is Ulmer’s debut recording, dating from 1977. So are there any more debut records to be released?

‘That record was the first record I made as leader. My very first record. I wanted to make it myself, and I got together with George, bassist Cecil McBee and drum­mer Doug Hammond, and took them into the studio. At the time I recorded that record, I had just finished playing with Ornette Coleman and I let Coleman listen to that record – he thought it was good, but then he said I’m going to help you make a harmolodic record, and I said oh, OK. So we worked on the harmolodic record (Tales Of Captain Black, inspired by Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic music, a wondrous compendium of harmony, mel­ody and rhythm that Ornette is still per­fecting), and we sold that record and mine went in the can.’

And sat there for 14 years?

‘Yes!’

There aren’t any more first records? Is that it?

‘Well, no. I made two, Revealing, and a blues-funk record at the same time, with a band I called the Funk Connection. And I have that master tape that cost me $25,000 right in the drawer. That record called the Funk Connection is still in the drawer. It’s bad [as in wicked]. It’s a good record.’

‘I always had the idea that playing music and singing songs was two different things and I always thought I would have to express both of them but at that time it was hard to do. Once the people hear you playing they label you so fast they don’t give you a chance to really do what you know best to do. So the harmolodic label stuck – but I’m a blues child, a blues singer. I love the blues. When I met Cole­man I learned the way he played, I learned that system he was talking about, I learned that music to play with him. But my music was always bluesy.’

A first album can be tentative, but Revealing is a very assured album. It doesn’t sound like a tentative start, and is still very fresh.

‘Everyone on that record was at the height of their esteem at playing music. Like George, he was an eager horn player at that time, his ambition was to come to New York and play with Mingus – at that time you didn’t come to New York to get ready, you came when you were ready. He did that, because at that time he was as hot as he could ever be, like a young ball player at his peak. I had just got out of the Coleman band, I was like real sure what I wanted to do at that moment. I wasn’t dis­couraged by anything. There was no disil­lusion in music at that time. But now! At that time I wasn’t beaten down, I just thought that everything that happened musically would happen, all you had to do was just dedicate yourself to doing it. And that record represents all of that.’

It is interesting to compare the title track of Revealing with the same track as it appears on the Captain Black album.

‘The difference between them is that that music on Revealing came out of what we called the Focus Novii concept (a group Ulmer led in Detroit in 1967 playing his own music) – we really studied it, ana­lysed it and worked with it. It was more or less music out of state – that is not of New York City – but it was music that was sup­posed to capture New York City. Harmo­lodic music happened in New York but this music happened outside. That is the difference.’

Working with Coleman

How long did you play with Coleman?

‘I played with Ornette – I met him in 1971 – from 1972-75, that was when I was in his band. I studied with him a lot, we studied much more than played. There was a lot of playing in the house, we did some gigs, we did some tours and stuff, and played constantly in New York.’

But apart from Captain Black, which is your album, there is nothing of Coleman’s on record that you are on.

‘No, that’s true. Coleman had never played with a coloured instrument before (that is, a guitar). I felt he was expanding and he figured it would work, but he’s a person who has to be real sure. Since he didn’t play the guitar he didn’t know about the guitar, he first had to learn about the guitar.’

So you were teaching him a lot?

‘Well, he was learning about the guitar! I was giving him what a guitar sounded like. But we did go in the studio and record many hours of music, and so he does have some music that we recorded that has never been released.’

The collapse of the Artists House label, which would have released that music, means that that whole catalogue is unavailable, including Captain Black.

Is there any chance of just that set being reissued?

‘I have the master tape! When I was with Blue Note, they wanted to put that record out, but they didn’t want to pay for it really.’

Ulmer was briefly signed by Blue Note, but now records for the German In + Out label, and for DIW in Japan.

Are you happy with two houses?

‘I have known Frank Kleinschmidt of In + Out a long time. He wanted to start this record company and I wanted to work with him, because in America they are only interested in totally commercial records. Totally produced records – when I was with CBS they wanted me to be more commercial, not more creative, and for that reason I wanted to wait and see if the atti­tude in America was going to change. So I decided to try to make records outside of America. I started working with DIW and others. They pay you well, and you can play the music you want to play. I thought that was good. And since I was working in Europe, it makes sense to do a deal with a European label, getting a different type of response and keeping some kind of orig­inality in the music.’

The state of jazz

Do you find it a bit sad that many of America’s major jazz musicians are recording either for Japanese, German or Italian labels? There are few American jazz labels.

‘It is sad. They don’t want that music. I think about it a lot, it’s really funny because they are not really interested in creative music. I have tried to make crea­tive commercial music, like the music I made on Blues Allnight, a live blues record, but even that’s not acceptable in America. I’ve done a lot of what I wanted to do, but for me to do it they would have to pay me to do it. I wouldn’t want to do it on speculation – I want to check and see where it is going. I must be going some­where first. No video, no commercial records, unless I know right where it’s going the same day I’m making it.

‘They want to put you on another level, which doesn’t have anything to do with you. On my last record for CBS, they told me they wanted me to record some differ­ent music, and record some things that don’t necessarily have anything to do with myself. And I said that the last record – Odyssey – would be without a bass. I guess you need a bass to be commercial, so I didn’t get my contract renewed! I was glad too.’

So what’s next?

‘I will continue making Music Revel­ation Music, and playing the blues. You’ve heard Elec. Jazz? – I think that is one of the best Ensemble releases yet. It worked too, it did exactly what I expected it to do. It did well in the jazz poll, but they said it was by David Murray! Yet the Ensemble is doing exactly what I wanted it to do. I know what I want to do all the time. I just want to go out there and play.’

Ulmer on record

Revealing, Ulmer’s first set from 1977, is on In + Out Records CD 7007-2, but the seminal Tales Of Captain Black, recorded with Ornette and Denardo Coleman and Jaamaladeen Tacuma in 1978 on Artists House has long been unavailable. Also hard to find, but worth tracking down, is the classic 1980 set Are You Glad To Be In America? on Rough Trade (Rough 16), Odyssey (1983, CBS 25602), with its raff­ish line-up of Ulmer, Warren Benbow on drums and Charles Burnham on violin, and its live counterpart Part Time (1983 Rough Trade, Rough 65). Other CBS albums from the same period include Freelancing and Black Rock.

Two Ulmer sets appeared in the mid-eighties on the short-lived Caravan of Dreams label – a live set (CDP 85004) and Got Something For You. His sole Blue Note release is America – Do You Remember The Love, with Bill Laswell and Ronald Shannon Jackson (1987, BT 85136).

Ulmer’s work with Phalanx is repre­sented on an eponymous 1986 set (Moers Music CD 02046), Original Phalanx (1987, DIW 801) and In Touch (1989, DIW 826). For the Music Revelation Ensemble, sample No Wave (1980, Moers Music CD 01072), an eponymous 1988 set (DIW 825) and the recently issued Elec. Jazz (1990, DIW 839). Ulmer’s blues trio, with Ronnie Drayton on guitar, Amin Ali on bass and Grant Calvin Weston on bass, can be heard on Blues Allnight (1989, In + Out 7005-2), and on the disappoin­ting Black And Blues (1990, DIW 845E).

Ulmer’s work with other musicians is sporadic, but he is on fine form on David Murray’s Children (1985, Black Saint CD 120089-2) and on Murray’s eponymous debut set for DIW (1986, DIW 802). His only record with Grant Calvin Weston is Dance Romance (1988, In + Out 7002).