About a year ago, I wrote a review on Bobby Rush’s appearance on Martin Scorcese’s program The Blues that read in part:
The Blues is a gigantic thing that most people (and most fans for that matter) never explore beyond the tourist areas populated by the giants of the trade. I personally started out with Hendrix, Stevie Ray, BB King, and Robert Johnson, and had to blaze my own path into the high weirdness from there.
My favorite blues – the realest stuff – are the performances that seem just a little tacky, and the singers who are too weird to be true. If I’m not a little repelled, yet totally drawn in, it’s probably not hitting the mark. . . . [I]n general, the weirder the better.
Guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer’s new album Birthright (Hyena Records) is firmly in this camp.
Ulmer started his career as a rock-funk-free-jazz guitarist of massive ability, playing with Ornette Coleman and later with Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society. Although Coleman remains a major influence, for the last two decades Ulmer has been moving away from the chaos of free jazz in favor of more structured jazz and funk sounds. Birthright (produced by fellow traveler Vernon Reid) throws all this over in favor of a gritty solo blues sound that recalls Robert Johnson and modern lords of Mississippi Gothic like Junior Kimbrough and T-Model Ford.
Like fellow free-jazz refugee Kelly Joe Phelps, Ulmer infuses his blues with dissonant harmonies and amorphous time signatures. Like Robert Johnson’s (or inveterate nutball Hasil Adkins’) recordings they are full of extra beats, shifting time signatures, and odd chord progressions that rub against everything that modern blues listeners expect to hear.
In the case of Kelly Joe Phelps, the effect of this latter-day rulebreaking – let’s call it “free blues” – is hypnotic and lovely. Blues fans absolutely should check out Shine Eyed Mister Zen or Sky Like a Broken Clock to get an idea of where he is coming from. But in Ulmer’s hands, the free blues is a raw and upsetting thing. With just a solo guitar and his voice, Ulmer makes Birthright a bleak masterpiece. Many of the performances float by – or rather crawl by – with only the suggestion of a beat, and the lyrics deal with the classic blues themes of salvation, damnation, bad love, good love, and the bitter downside of the upside of life.
Ulmer is a guitarist of enormous talents so his playing flies from Memphis to Mali at will, sometimes dipping into free jazz, sometimes circling a West African rhythm, and sometimes raising the spirit of good old Southern gospel.
On Birthright, Ulmer doesn’t so much play the blues as strip them to the bone. One song, the instrumental “The Evil One” is literally a free-blues attack, a scorched-earth Cecil Taylorish piece of jagged beauty. Elsewhere, Ulmer keeps his lyrics unremittingly personal and direct. For example, on the 12-bar “I Can’t Take It Anymore,” Ulmer sings “I don’t love you no more / I’m afraid you might take my soul / wrap it up in a paper bag / and give it to someone as a drag / Your love is so cold, / I can’t take it no more,” and on the lovely and oddly Stones-ish “Where Did All The Girls Come From” he wonders, “Where did all the girls come from / I only have enough money for one.” Somehow, Ulmer’s performance of both these lyrics come off as one step removed from a suicide note even though at first blush they practically amount to blues clichés. But every song on Birthright rises far beyond cliché to deal in an uncommonly original and personal way – even for the blues – with sin, redemption, and the ties that bind.
I can’t claim to be an expert on Ulmer’s career, but this sounds like an album any artist makes only once. I wish I could pick individual songs out of this album and say “here’s what this is about, this is it,” but I can’t. I haven’t heard a blues record this raw, this affecting, this uncompromising, and – yes – this nearly perfect, in a long time.
It may not be pretty – in fact it is often downright ugly, but Birthright is an absolutely stunning album. From the cautiously hopeful start of “Take My Music Back To Church” to the demented cackles and otherworldly flute that end the closing “Devil’s Got To Burn,” Ulmer twists the blues into a form that captures what he, and he alone, needs to say. It may not be inviting or to everybody’s taste, but not everything worthwhile is. To use Greil Marcus’ term, Ulmer has tapped into the “old, weird America” I love so well.