Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Ulmer, James "Blood"

Guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer's visceral performance style combines influences from blues, funk, jazz and rock in a timbre akin to a woodwind instrument. His sound, honed alongside saxophonist Ornette Coleman in the seventies marked an important step forward for post-fusion guitarists.

Ulmer espouses Coleman's so-called “harmolodic” approach to jazz, in which harmony, melody and rhythm are all given equal importance. Ulmer has adapted Coleman's techniques to the guitar, expanding the instrument's potential in jazz with unusual tunings, voicings and extended techniques.

James Ulmer was born on February 2, 1942 in St. Matthews, South Carolina. As a child, he was surrounded by blues and gospel music, which served as his first attraction to music. At the age of seven, James joined his father’s vocal quartet, The Southern Sons. With the ensemble, he received his first opportunities to sing and play the guitar. He performed with the group until he was thirteen years old.

An early influence on Ulmer was guitarist Johnny Wilson, a local blues player that his mother did not like him listening to. James received the opportunity to perform on a more frequent basis with local church groups. These groups served to provide him an outlet for his ever-growing musical energies.

In 1959, Ulmer moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he first worked as a professional musician. In Pittsburgh he performed with pop groups such as the Savoys and the Del-Kings. He was introduced to more traditional jazz guitar playing by a then fifteen-year-old guitarist named George Benson, who encouraged Ulmer to expand his scope as a musician.

An early lesson that Benson taught Ulmer was to use his thumb to strum and pick notes in the style of guitarist Wes Montgomery.This approach helped Ulmer expand the range of sounds he was able to produce on the guitar. James showcased this new technique in performances with organ-based combos led by Jimmy Smith and Richard “Groove” Holmes. During this time, he was given the nickname “Youngblood,” which was then abbreviated to “Blood.”

In 1963, Ulmer was based out of Columbus, Ohio and formed his the band “Blood and the Bloodbrothers.” The group’s early gigs included performing at the city's 502 Club and as a backing group for singer Dionne Warwick. Ulmer also began to perform with organist Hank Marr along with tenor saxophonist George Adams and accompanied him on a European tour. In 1967, after this tour, James moved to Detroit, where he began to take his musical studies seriously and learned to compose music.

Ulmer soon found work with organist Big John Patton and recorded with him on his 1969 releases Accent of the Blues and Memphis to New York Spirit. James also began to teach guitar at the Metropolitan Art Complex and formed the groups The James Blood Trio and Focus Novii.

With Focus Novii, Ulmer began to adopt non-standard guitar tunings and experimented in other ways, such as with a concept called “unison tuning," in which he tuned all of the strings of his guitar to the same note. The distinctive sound this produces has since become a hallmark of his playing style.

Ulmer decided to move to New York City in May of 1971. Ulmer’s early gigs in New York included a brief stint with drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers as well as recording with tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson on his 1973 album Multiple. James also held a nine-month residency at Minton’s Playhouse, the famed Harlem club which had served as a crucible of bebop in the 1940s.

In 1973, Ulmer met drummer Rashied Ali and recorded the album Rashied Ali Quintet with him the Survivor label. During this time, James also performed with pianist Paul Bley and recorded with organist Larry Young on his 1973 album Lawrence of Newark.

Around this time, Ulmer also met Coleman, and with the saxophonist's encouragement, he began to experiment more with his compositional efforts. James moved into Ornette’s loft where he studied the saxophonist's elusive “harmolodic theory.”

Ulmer then set about adapting Coleman's approach to the guitar. He spent the 1970s performing with the saxophonist, making appearances at the Ann Arbor Jazz and Blues Festival in 1974 and at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1977. Throughout this time, Coleman's group also made appearances at the Five Spot Café in New York City.

1977 saw the release of Revealing, Ulmer's first album as a leader. Recorded for the In & Out label, the album featured George Adams, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Doug Hammond. In 1979, James released his second album, Tales of Captain Black. The album featured contributions from Coleman, Denardo Coleman on drums and bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma.

Ulmer continued to record prolifically during this period, releasing his album Are You Glad to Be in America? in 1980. The album featured tenor saxophonist David Murray, alto saxophonist “Revelation March” to the funk feel of “Jazz Is The Teacher (Funk the Preacher).”

A highlight of the album is its title track. The song features Ulmer only on guitar and vocals on this blues drenched number. James’ voice at times calls attention to guitarist/vocalist Muddy Waters with his vibrato saturated phrasing and deep pronunciation of the lyrics. His guitar playing is more direct in its execution, showing off a beautiful accompaniment to his vocals. He adds a great deal of power to his performance by playing pedal points throughout the song, enhancing the harmonic resonance of the composition.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ulmer’s uncommon approach to the guitar brought him to the attention of the New Wave and Punk rock scene in New York. In 1980, James opened up for British rock band Public Image Ltd. and performed at the club CBGBs. 1980 also saw James recording with the Music Revelation Ensemble, a jazz group that consisted of Ulmer, Murray, Jackson and Ali.

With several independent released under his belt, Ulmer signed a recording contract with Columbia Records. James’ first release for Columbia was the 1981 album Free Lancing. In 1984, he released the album Odyssey, which featured the unusual trio of drums, guitar and violin. Critics and fans alike praised the album with the Village Voice naming it the Album of the Year.

In October 1984, Ulmer appeared on David Murray’s album Children, recorded with bassist Lonnie Plaxico and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith. The album includes the Murray original composition “David-Mingus,” which fully accentuates Ulmer’s talents as an accompanist while still holding his trademark style intact. James uses the blues-rock shuffle of the drums to his advantage by incorporating chordal slides and strums over Murray’s improvisations. Ulmer counteracts Murray’s free-sounding solo by adding percussive decorations that are improved by Plaxico’s contrapuntal phrasing.

While Odyssey was praised, Columbia Records decided to drop him from the label. Ulmer performed with trios and quartets throughout the 1980s as well as performing with the Music Revolution Ensemble. In 1986, Ulmer released the album America: Do You Remember the Love? The album was produced by bassist Bill Laswell and features contributions from guitarist Nicky Skopelitis and Ronald Shannon Jackson. In 1987, Ulmer formed the group Phalanx with Rashied Ali, George Adams, and bassist Sirone.

During the late 1980s, Ulmer led a rhythm and blues group that toured Europe. In the early 1990s, the group toured as a quartet featuring Amin Ali, guitarist Ronnie Drayton, and pianist Randy Weston. Soon after, the group toured as a trio with Amin Ali and drummer Aubrey Dayle. In 1994, James recorded as a duo with pianist/vibraphonist Karl Berger in Germany.

In 1997, Ulmer released Music Speaks Louder Than Words, which featured his take on six Ornette Coleman compositions including “Sphinx,” “Street News,” and “Cherry, Cherry.” The album also features contributions from his son, keyboardist Michael Mustafa Ulmer.

Ulmer’s interpretation of Coleman’s material is best represented by his version of “Lonely Woman.” After a brief introduction from Rashied Ali and bassist Calvin Jones, Ulmer plays the melody rather straightforward while occasionally adding harmony to the notes via perfect fifth and octave intervals. During his solo, James plays everything from short rhythmic bursts and terse note bends to long broad harmonic strokes. His performance is made all the more superior by the superb ear of Jones, who plays off of him producing a strong counterpoint.

1997 also found Ulmer forming the band Third Rail with Laswell, pianist Amina Claudine Myers, keyboardist Bernie Worrell and drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste. The group performed an eclectic mix of blues, jazz, rock and soul. In 1999, James led the New Jazz Quartet with Ali, pianist John Hicks and bassist Reggie Workman.

In 2001, Ulmer released Memphis Blood: The Sun Session, a collection of fourteen blues songs, which he recorded with guitarist Vernon Reid and violinist Charles Burnham. The album was the first in a series of albums where James continued to explore his love for the blues. He followed up Memphis Blood with the 2003 album No Escape From the Blues and 2005’s Birthright. Birthright was awarded “Blues Album of the Year” by Down Beat’s readers and critics poll.

In 2006, Ulmer toured Europe with his group the Memphis Blood Blues Band. In 2007, he released Bad Blood in the City: The Piety Street Sessions, an album inspired by impact of Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans.

Ulmer maintains a productive performance and recording schedule.

Select Discography

As a leader

Revealing (1977)

Tales of Captain Black (1978)

Are You Glad To Be in America? (1980)

Free Lancing (1981)

Odyssey (1984)

Phalanx (1986)

Blues Preacher (1992)

Music Speaks Louder Than Words (1997)

Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions (2001)

No Escape From the Blues (2003)

Birthright (2005)

Bad Blood in the City: The Piety Street Sessions (2007)

With Rashied Ali

Rashied Ali Quintet (1973)

With Joe Henderson

Multiple (1973)

With David Murray

Children (1984)

With Big John Patton

Accent on the Blues (1969)

Memphis to New York Spirit (1969)

With Larry Young

Lawrence Of Newark (1973)

Contributor: Eric Wendell