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November 05, 2013

An Interview With Bluesman James Blood Ulmer

James_Blood_Ulmer-0198James Blood Ulmer's music is equal parts blues, free jazz, funk and a lot of other things. He's a ferocious guitarist whose playing is tinted with shades of Jimi Hendrix, Sonny Sharrock, Gary Lucas and Son House, but his work is very strongly his own.

Ulmer has collaborated with Ornette Coleman, Vernon Reid, Bill Laswell, Art Blakey, Rashied Ali and countless others in his long and varied career. There's no other guitarist quite like him.

Ulmer recently spoke with Seven Days by phone from his home in New York City, in advance of his concert at the Flynn. The conversation began with a consideration of the best route to take when driving from New York City to Burlington.

Seven Days: There are so many different traditions winding through your music: blues, jazz, funk, soul, gospel. How do you define yourself, musically speaking? Does it even matter?

James Blood Ulmer: What I’m trying to be, what I’ll hopefully be, is … a change in music. I came up with a guitar style that was a totally different change, that sounds different from the regular sound of the guitar. … I’m always trying to make a difference, trying to upgrade. Well, not upgrade, but change. I’m a guy who always wanted to take my 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 not throw me out the door.

What is it about the blues that keeps bringing you back to it? Why is it so powerful and enduring?

Blues, I think, is very basic — the mother of jazz. That is the mother music.

My daddy didn’t allow us to listen to blues or hillbilly music in the house. My daddy was a Christian man, and he was strict. I wasn’t allowed 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 who used to drink White Lightning. Lived right in front of the church. The other man played gospel, but he drank alcohol, too! I had to sneak around and listen to them.

I started in music backwards. I started in the gospel. At 14, I stopped. I didn’t play no music until I graduated from high school and went to Pittsburgh … At the end of the summer, when it was getting ready to get cold again, my cousin said, “Y’all got to get a job.”

I said, “Well, how much 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 that be OK?”

“As long as you don’t steal it,” he said. Something had to happen, and then I remembered: I knew how to play guitar.

Old bluesmen never played long solos on the guitar. It never was about that. You never thought of Muddy Waters as a great guitar player. He was a bluesman. A bluesman has a story, and a way he tells the story. … Music and song begin to sound like scriptures. Not the Bible or anything, but a scripture in that it gives you the same feeling. It’s not about how good the guy is who’s playing the music. That’s what I try to keep away from.

Jamesbloodulmer_show_pageYou studied with Ornette Coleman and have adapted his system of “harmolodics” to your own music. How do you describe and discuss harmolodics?

I don’t look at Coleman as a jazz player. Harmolodics is an unwritten music theory … But harmolodics has what you call laws. You follow these 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 … The rhythm is superimposed, not linear. There are changes, there are modulations. These laws are used in harmolodics, and that’s what Coleman used. He doesn’t have to write it down.

I found out those laws are very valuable no matter what you do in music. Once you start applying those laws to blues, you start playing perfect blues. Blues have no laws. There’s no time, no changes, no particular meter you’re in. You can do blues music in any meter. That’s why blues is first. The laws in harmolodics are the same laws they have in the blues.

The ultimate thing that harmolodic music does is become like a language … The music. That’s all that matters. You’re not really creating anything. Everything was here already. We’re just discoverers of what was here already.

Are there any musicians 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 gonna be like they play. A booking agent brought a whole band here once. He wanted to get me gigs playing with these people, but they couldn’t play my music. Great people, but the music I’m playing … I had to say to the drummer, “Could you use lose the backbeat?” He just said, “What?”

They wanna play the way they play. Yeah, I’m really looking for somebody to play with … I would love to play with some new musicians. Brand new. The unprogrammed ones.

James Blood Ulmer performs on Saturday, November 9, at 8 p.m., at the FlynnSpace in Burlington. $25.

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