James Blood Ulmer

You’re a blues traditionalist, and someone says to you, “Hey, have I got the CD for you — this avant-jazz dude hitting Sun Studios, doing stuff like ‘Little Red Rooster,’ ‘Dimples,’ and ‘Fattening Frogs for Snakes.’ He even sounds a little like John Lee Hooker.” You respond with a little noncommittal sound, sort of a gurgling “gick” noise.

You’re an Ornette Coleman-ite, and you’ve followed guitarist James Blood Ulmer’s jazz-rock and jazz-blues-fusion experiments with Coleman’s tunes, and someone describes the same CD. “It’s got Vernon Reid on it,” you’re reassured. People nearby hear you say either “Oh boy” or “Yee-haw.”

Either way, you’d be wrong. The right answer is simply: “Oh, hell yeah.”

Ex-Living Color guitarist Reid, a longtime Ulmer protégé, is responsible for this recorded pilgrimage. There’s a sense here that both men have been meaning to do this for a long time. Ulmer, easily the most rock-leaning Coleman alum, has always been based in the blues, with albums such as Blues Preacher (1992), Black and Blues (1990), and Blues All Night (1989), but even Ulmer’s most traditional renderings have always been jazz songs first. Here, Ulmer might not be as blue as Sun veteran Howlin’ Wolf, but he’s pretty close to Muddy Waters, and his band, with his guitar leading the way, bends the hardcore blues only subtly. It takes a few listens to reveal that the “guitar” work on “I Just Want to Make Love to You” is actually Charles Burnham’s electric violin. It might take a few more for blues fans to get comfortable with the upside-down bassline of “Money” or to accept someone besides Otis Rush breaking hearts and guitar strings with “Double Trouble.” And no one needs another version of “Back Door Man” — except this one.

Categories: Music