James Blood Ulmer's music isequal parts blues, free jazz, funk and a lot of other things. He's a ferocious guitarist whose playing is tinted with shades of JimiHendrix, Sonny Sharrock, Gary Lucas and Son House, but his work is verystrongly his own.
Ulmer has collaborated with Ornette Coleman, Vernon Reid,Bill Laswell, Art Blakey, Rashied Ali and countless others in his long andvaried career. There's no other guitarist quite like him.
Ulmer recently spoke with Seven Days by phone from his home in NewYork City, in advance of his concert at the Flynn. The conversation beganwith a consideration of the best route to take when driving from New York Cityto Burlington.
Seven Days: There areso many different traditions winding through your music: blues, jazz, funk,soul, gospel. How do you define yourself, musically speaking? Does it evenmatter?
James Blood Ulmer: What I’m trying to be, what I’ll hopefully be, is … a change in music. I came up with a guitarstyle that was a totally different change, that sounds different from theregular sound of the guitar. … I’m always trying to make a difference, tryingto upgrade. Well, not upgrade, but change. I’m a guy who always wanted to takemy guitar at high noon and play it at a Baptist church on Sunday … I’d like to play my guitar for the Baptist folks and have them notthrow me out the door.
Whatis it about the blues that keeps bringing you back to it? Why is it so powerfuland enduring?
Blues, I think, is very basic — the mother of jazz. That isthe mother music.
My daddy didn’t allow us to listen to blues or hillbillymusic in the house. My daddy was a Christian man, and he was strict. I wasn’tallowed to play no blues as a child. I had to sneak out to hear the two guys in my town who played guitar. One was a blues player whoused to drink White Lightning. Lived right in front of the church. The otherman played gospel, but he drank alcohol, too! I had to sneak around and listento them.
I started in music backwards. I started in the gospel. At14, I stopped. I didn’t play no music until I graduated from high school andwent to Pittsburgh … At the end of the summer, when it was getting ready toget cold again, my cousin said, “Y’all got to get a job.”
I said, “Well, howmuch is the rent?” He said, “Six dollars a week.”
“Oh, wow, six dollars a week,”I said. “If I can get the six dollars a week without getting a job, would thatbe OK?”
“As long as you don’t steal it,” he said. Something had to happen, andthen I remembered: I knew how to play guitar.
Old bluesmen never played long solos on the guitar. It neverwas about that. You never thought of Muddy Waters as a great guitar player. Hewas a bluesman. A bluesman has a story, and a way he tells the story. … Musicand song begin to sound like scriptures. Not the Bible or anything, but ascripture in that it gives you the same feeling. It’s not about how good theguy is who’s playing the music. That’s what I try to keep away from.
You studied withOrnette Coleman and have adapted his system of “harmolodics” to your ownmusic. How do you describe and discuss harmolodics?
I don’t look at Coleman as a jazz player. Harmolodics is anunwritten music theory … But harmolodics has what you call laws. You followthese laws and then you’re harmolodics all the way.
Coleman has these laws he follows. He don’t play no chords,don’t follow no changes, like in jazz. Don’t have linear time signatures … Therhythm is superimposed, not linear. There are changes, there are modulations.These laws are used in harmolodics, and that’s what Coleman used. He doesn’thave to write it down.
I found out those laws are very valuable no matter what youdo in music. Once you start applying those laws to blues, you start playingperfect blues. Blues have no laws. There’s no time, no changes, no particularmeter you’re in. You can do blues music in any meter. That’s why blues isfirst. The laws in harmolodics are the same laws they have in the blues.
The ultimate thing that harmolodic music does is become likea language … The music. That’s all that matters. You’re not really creatinganything. Everything was here already. We’re just discoverers of what was herealready.
Are there anymusicians you’d really like to collaborate with?
Yeah, some new ones. But I don’t know who they are, though! …My problem is I got to play with people who know my music, and it ain’t gonnabe like they play. A booking agent brought a whole band here once. He wanted toget me gigs playing with these people, but they couldn’t play my music. Greatpeople, but the music I’m playing … I had to say to the drummer, “Could youuse lose the backbeat?” He just said, “What?”
They wanna play the way theyplay. Yeah, I’m really looking for somebody to play with … I would love to play with some new musicians. Brand new. Theunprogrammed ones.
James Blood Ulmer performs on Saturday,November 9, at 8 p.m., at the FlynnSpace in Burlington. $25. flynntix.org