Preview: James "Blood" Ulmer's Black Rock Experience
A jazz, blues and rock guitar master brings his Muse to town
Posted: January 23, 2013
Master guitarist and blues singer James "Blood" Ulmer has performed in Prague many times before, but this time he will be accompanied by vocalist Queen Esther.
Few musicians manage to seamlessly fuse jazz, the blues and rock as well as James "Blood" Ulmer, who brings his most current group, Black Rock Experience featuring Queen Esther, to Jazz Time.
Ulmer, born in South Carolina in 1942, is a master of electric, particularly noted by jazz historians and critics as an innovator since the early 1970s, when he established himself as the "harmolodic" guitarist of the free saxophonist Ornette Coleman's plugged-in group Prime Time.
Harmolodics was Coleman's evolving musical philosophy, suggesting harmony, melody, speed, rhythm, time and phrasing all have equal position in a song's performance, freeing compositions of any tonal center and pursuing progression independent of European ideas of tension and release.
Ulmer has also kept this philosophy as his own musical guide for much of his career. Recordings such as 1978's Tales of Captain Black, produced by Coleman, and 1982's Black Rock combine his aggressive, jagged guitar sound with free jazz and hard funk.
When: Wednesday, Jan. 30, at 9
Where: Jazz Time
Tickets: 370 Kč in advance, 400 Kč at the venue
When punk and the No Wave scene took off in New York in the mid-1970s, Ulmer also fronted The James Blood Band, the first black group to play punk-funk-No Wave. Thus, his influence is still heard today in New York-based avant-garde jazz and indie rock guitarists from Marc Ribot to the "harmolodic" sound of Sonic Youth.
Before joining Coleman, Ulmer had already earned his credentials as part of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, the hard bop saxophonist Joe Henderson, and soul organists Big John Patton and Larry Young. He had also played previously with free jazz avant-gardists Paul Bley, Rashied Ali and Billy Higgins (who had first introduced him to the legendary Coleman).
Now in his 70s, Ulmer has a deep and soulful voice, and so over the past 10 years he has become more visible as a singer and guitarist on the blues and black rock music scenes, especially since he joined forces with Vernon Reid, the guitarist and songwriter of the seminal Living Colour, which formed in 1983.
Ulmer's first recording with Reid, 2001's Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions, was nominated for a Grammy Award. Subsequent critically acclaimed recordings - such as 2003's No Escape From the Blues: The Electric Ladyland Sessions and 2007's Bad Blood in the City: The Piety Street Sessions (both produced by Reid on Hyena Records) - have solidified Ulmer's place as a guitarist and matter-of-fact raspy vocalist in the same vein as John Lee Hooker, Little Walter and Muddy Waters.
The Bad Blood session takes the catastrophic flooding of New Orleans in 2005 as the inspiration for a deep blues, R&B, gospel and New Orleans funk with Ulmer front and center as vocalist on original songs with searing social commentary, but also blues classics with similar tactics including "Dead Presidents," originally by Willie Dixon, and "Commit a Crime" by Chester Burnett.
Over the years, Ulmer has brought various groups to Prague, but his upcoming concert at Jazz Time marks the return of an exceptional vocalist, Queen Esther, who appeared with him at Rock Café on a scorching summer evening a decade ago. And, even though the audience was sparse that night compared with many of his other concerts in Prague, Ulmer, with his trio Blues Experience Raw, shined internally and musically more than ever.
In addition to the Queen, Ulmer's Black Rock Experience includes longtime collaborators such as the drummer Grant Calvin Weston, who first recorded with him on 1980's Are You Glad to be in America?, and bassist Mark Peterson, who was part of the 52nd Street Blues Project, backing Ulmer and Esther on their 2004 alternative folk collaboration, Blues & Grass.
Expect a true blues rock journey across American roots genres led by Ulmer, wearing his usual long robe, mystical cap and medallions. He is an unmistakable presence to say the least.
Tony Ozuna can be reached at