Blood is one heavy cat. Nothing he touches is ever delicate or light. He is rough and tumble and hardcore all the way through. When he was an avant-garde jazz guitarist with Ornette Coleman, he took to the fretboard like a monster wanting to devour it, making sounds on that thing that nobody in this world had ever heard before. “Edgy” ain’t the word, baby. He was to the jazz guitar what Dadaism was to visual art, unrestrained, turbulent, explosive, and even violent.
A supreme expressionist and creative tour-de-force, he was the most individualistic guitarist in jazz, playing a jagged, free-jazz on the guitar, similar to what Cecil Taylor was doing at the piano at the time. Despite all that, he has always been a blues player, in the same way that John Coltrane often stated that he was just “blowing the blues” on his saxophone. In recent times, James Blood Ulmer has released a series of albums with producer Vernon Reid that go back to the roots of his musical origin. Still individualistic and creative in his approach to the blues, he delivers a deeply emotive roots-blues with sheer power and prowess. His music always has an underlying tension, a strain of pain that stings like the harsh, occasionally discordant guitar and singing style. He sings with painful moans about white man’s jail and warns of the devil that whispers sweet things in your ear. Throw the rulebooks out the window. He goes where he wants and does what he wants. He doesn’t play what people want or expect and some are disgusted because he refuses to conform. That’s what makes him so good, the freedom of it all.
Needles to say, he solely reigns over a wing of the acoustic blues that is almost indefinable and contradictory. At once traditional and modern, his covers of old blues songs are arranged in such exceptional and unusual ways, they sound like no other. His originals delve deeply into the roots blues, but he throws in pieces of this and that, sometimes odd jazz solos, or middle eastern chants or Indian ragas, or Bebop, sometimes they fit sometimes they don’t, but he pulls it off. The result is some of the most interesting and delightfully fresh music made in the blues today. This is the traditional blues at its best.
James Blood Ulmer is a monster genius. If ever there was proof that the acoustic blues not only survives, but, is in the forefront of innovative and progressive music with meaning, this is it.