“I hate interviews,” declares legendary avant-funk-rock guitarist JAMES “BLOOD” ULMER as he peers over his dark shades when I introduce myself to him. His distaste for being interrogated by journalists is expressed with such vehemence and so forcefully that I don’t doubt his antipathy for a second. That doesn’t bode too well for our scheduled conversation, which is about to take place in his dressing room backstage at Bethnal Green’s Rich Mix venue. I laugh nervously but the skull-capped big man – who’s elegantly attired in a dark suit which is coolly complemented by two-tone, snakeskin boots – instantly puts me at ease. “Oh, it’s all right,” he chuckles, in a deep melodious voice. “It’s necessary. There’s a lot of shit that is necessary. If you make records you got to do interviews.”
He laughs heartily again but at 76-years-old, Ulmer – who also suffers, he tells me, from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and these days plays sitting down on stage – could be forgiven for being weary of the promotional rituals and press games that go along with working in the music business. But he’s here in London not to promote a new album but perform live with his trio as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. From here he travels to continental Europe for a few select dates. “The next gig is in Austria,” he says, in a strong, molasses-rich, southern American accent that reveals his South Carolina roots. “We’re going about six little countries. I can’t play these long tours no more but I don’t want to eliminate them altogether.“
Being in London brings back fond memories for the man who took Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic principle – a unique system of improvisation brought about by key modulation – and applied it to the guitar. It was in London in 1980 that he launched himself on the international stage when his second album, ‘Are You Glad To Be In America?,’ was licensed by the London-based indie label, Rough Trade, and proved something of a cult sensation. “That record got me started,” confirms Ulmer. “I wrote the music for that record in England. I was thinking of leaving America and almost moved to London at that time I was having such a good time.” The guitarist admits that he“really fell in love with London” but what stopped him from upping sticks permanently was the hedonistic nature of the music scene in the UK’s capital city at the time. “I changed my mind because they had too many drugs in London,” he discloses, “and I thought, ‘oh no I can’t do that, I’ll wind up a drug addict….'”
James “Blood” Ulmer first emerged as a viable solo artist in 1978 when his was a protégé of free jazz maven, Ornette Coleman, who produced his debut album, ‘Tales Of Captain Black,’ which was released under the name James Blood on Coleman’s own Artists House imprint. Before that, Ulmer was a journeyman R&B guitar player who made temporary stops in Pittsburgh – where he played with the doo-wop group, The Del-Vikings, in the late-’50s – and then Detroit and Ohio in the 1960s before landing in New York in 1970.
But going right back to the dawn of his life, Ulmer originates from St. Matthews, South Carolina, and was born into a family whose music roots were steeped in the sound of the church. “I sang in my daddy’s gospel quartet called The Southern Sons,” he reveals. “He loved quartet singing and formed a group. He played guitar and managed us and took us all over the south, playing with all kinds of acts. I sang with the group from when I was seven-years-old to thirteen. We were the opening act for some famous quartet singers, including the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Five Blind Boys. “
It was when he was performing with The Southern Sons that young Willie James Ulmer (to give him his full name) took up the guitar. His father showed him the ropes and soon afterwards he was accompanying the group’s harmonies with his fretboard work. But it wasn’t until he was much older that James Ulmer began to make a name for himself. His first breaks came when he played as a sideman in several late-’60s organ combos – including those led by Hank Marr and ‘Big’ John Patton – but it was when Ornette Coleman heard him in New York during the ’70s that the guitarist’s fortunes changed. “Ornette loved me so much,” he recalls, “and wanted to try having a guitar in his band. I was living with him at the time and he just used to rehearse and rehearse and rehearse. He loved to work on music all the time and would rehearse eight hours a day, playing every day for months.”
It was while he was staying with Ornette Coleman that he discovered a new tuning for his guitar that would not only help give him a unique sound but also revolutionise his approach to the guitar. “I had a dream about this tuning where all the strings were in unison,” he says. “When I woke up, I grabbed the guitar and changed the tuning to what it was in the dream. All of the strings were tuned to A but each string had a different sound. I went to Ornette. He was in his bed sleeping and at the time he used to sleep with his horn in his bed. I said ‘oh, man, listen to this’ and he said ‘okay, let me get my horn.’ He picked up his horn and said ‘now play.’ I said ‘listen to this, man,’ and it had this drone thing on it. He said ‘play me a C.’ I said,’ I ain’t got C’ (laughs). Then he said, ‘play B-flat.’ ‘I ain’t got no B-flat,’ I said, ‘and I ain’t got no chords.’ So that’s how that tuning came about.”
He still uses this unique tuning today and believes that it liberated him musically. “It kind of relieved me from being a worker,” he says, laughing raucously. “It set me free from playing chords all the time because I had no chords. I didn’t have to do that now.”
According to the guitarist, it was thanks to Ornette Coleman that he got the name “Blood”: “It started with that first record I made that Coleman produced called ‘Tales Of Captain Black.’ He called me James Blood on the record. So he started that shit, not me. I think he just wanted to create a character.”
Two years later, ‘Are You Glad To Be In America?‘ – attributed to James “Blood” Ulmer – came out and as a result of the interest it stimulated, the monied major labels came sniffing after him. “That record got me a deal,” he says. “There were three record companies at once wanting to sign me because of the work I did with Rough Trade: Columbia Records, Warner Brothers and Atlantic. But we went with Columbia Records and I made three records with them.“
1981’s ‘Free Lancing’ was his Columbia debut, followed by 1982’s ‘Black Rock.’ He was preparing to record his third album for the label when, he says, a Columbia executive took him aside. “A guy there called me to his office and said ‘okay, now we’ve made two records and this is your third record coming up and we want you to make a blues record.’ He also wanted me to do a couple of Jimi Hendrix songs and some Bruce Springsteen and a whole other bunch of stuff. I said ‘wait a minute, I signed up with Columbia to do my own music,’ and he said ‘well, if you do your own music, it’s going to take longer.’ I was so upset about it that I said to myself, ‘I’m going to go as far out as I can go and make a record with just two instruments and no bass.’ I’d never heard of anybody making record with no bass before.” What resulted was 1983’s ‘Odyssey,’ an album which found Ulmer playing with violinist Charles Burnham and drummer, Warren Benbow. Though sonically and conceptually it was radical, it’s perceived as one of Ulmer’s best LPs. But evidently, Columbia didn’t think so and it was no surprise, perhaps, that Ulmer was dropped by the label. After that he was at Blue Note for one album (‘America – Do You Remember The Love?’) and thereafter preferred to travel the independent route, recording for several different labels.
In 2001, when he was sixty-one, James “Blood” Ulmer reinvented himself as a blues artist with the help of black rock group Living Colour’s noted guitarist, Vernon Reid. “That was his idea,” laughs Ulmer, who started singing more on his records in what became his trademark gravelly voice. “He was just so sure that I could make a blues record. Ornette Coleman thought that too. He’d say, ‘Blood, you could do blues,’ but I said I never thought that because I’d never played blues. My daddy told me that blues was the devil’s music. To me, blues is a pain in the ass if you try to sing it because it can make you cry. But I wasn’t doing too much at that time so I said ‘okay, I’ll try that and do a blues record.’ Vernon chose the songs and all I did was just sit there and sing the songs. I didn’t have to do anything. He chose the band, he gave them the music and he produced me. It was called ‘Memphis Blood.'”
Three more blues-themed, Reid-helmed albums appeared in the noughties (‘No Escape From The Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions,’ ‘Birthright,’ and ‘Bad Blood In The City: The Piety Sessions‘) before Ulmer started releasing music on his own label, American Revelation. It’s been six years since his last album, 2010’s ‘In And Out,’ but the 76-year-old is keen to record again. “Vernon Reid just called me and now wants me to do another record,” he discloses. “I told him that I want to make a country & western record with the Blood Blues Band.“
Ulmer laughs raucously and you don’t know whether he’s being serious or not. His mirth subsides when he mentions another idea for an album he has. “My last mission is to eliminate the backbeat and swing that’s so dominant in music,” he states. “That’s because backbeat and swing are the core of all music – blues, funk, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll.” But I don’t want to hear no damned backbeat. ‘Are You Glad to Be in America?’ was a record that was headed that way because Shannon Jackson was playing the drums. He’s the only brother I know who can leave the backbeat and the swing behind and play something different, like a march kind of thing. So I’m ready to go with that.“
Having said that, the veteran guitarist isn’t about to renounce the funk just yet. “Half the songs I’m doing tonight have a backbeat,” he laughs, “but that’s because I’m just bringing back the memory of songs that people know, like ‘Jazz Is The Teacher (Funk Is The Preacher)’ and ‘Are You Glad To Be In America?’ I don’t want to throw away songs like that just because they’ve got a backbeat on them.”
It sounds as if Ulmer wants to be different from everyone else but he disagrees with that interpretation of his modus operandi. “No, no,” he demurs, “I’m not trying to be different. I’m just trying to be independent of people. That’s why I can’t vote for nobody. That’s why I can’t go government… I would like to go government but government don’t do nothing for me. Government won’t help me with these notes that I’m playing on the guitar.”
He laughs heartily again and I ask him about his homeland, the USA. What’s his response to the result of the recent US presidential election? “I don’t think about no election or anything,” Ulmer states gruffly, meaning that talk of politics is off-limits. “I’ve never voted. There’s some deep stuff going on and we could talk about it for 50 years but I don’t really want to do that.“
James “Blood” Ulmer’s had a long and fairly fruitful career but isn’t ready to retire and rest on his laurels just yet. His response to being asked what’s been the highlight of his career is typically pragmatic and down-to-earth: “I’m looking forward not back. Highlights are when I retire and rest. I’ll be 80 years old in three more years, so what am I supposed to do? I’ve got to find a comfort zone. I want to do something that’s a summary of everything I’ve done.“
And with that statement, our interview is over. I put my hand into his big, bear-like paw and we shake hands. He agrees, though reluctantly it seems, to sign my well-worn copy of ‘Are You Glad To Be In America?’ “I hate signing records,” he states bluntly. “I don’t usually do it but I’ll just sign this for you because you been asking me all kinds of stupid shit.” My face drops but he cracks a smile that expands into a mischievous chortle. “I’m just messin’ with you,” he laughs.
Despite his avowed aversion to interviews, James “Blood” Ulmer gave a good account of himself and though, initially, I had trepidations over our face-to-face encounter, I discovered that he’s warm, jovial and good-natured – and thankfully, his bark is definitely worse than his bite.
An hour later, I watched him perform from the very front of the stage, where accompanied by long-time cohorts, drummer Aubrey Gayle and bassist Mark Peterson, he cradled his six-string Gibson Birdland and gave a master class in the art of harmolodic guitar, accompanying his lacerating, expressive fretboard work with bluesy, resonant vocals. His old mentor, the late Ornette Coleman, would have been proud.