James Blood Ulmer – Bad Blood In The City: The Piety Street Sessions (2007)

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There probably isn’t a guitarist today who is at once rootsy, complex and yet undernoticed as James “Blood” Ulmer. He stands at the juxtaposition of so many styles that he cannot be put neatly in a single one of those. His uniquely scrabbling guitar attack, as once described by Village Voice music critic Greg Tate, is “the missing link between Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery on one hand, between P-Funk and Mississippi Fred McDowell on the other.” He’s got a gruff singing style to match his axe playing, weary but full of old-school attitude.

When you examine his long and extensive background, you begin to understand how he got to pull together so many disparate varieties of music together. In the sixties he played R&B and funk in juke joints across the Midwest. He played for organ man Big John Patton and legendary drummer Art Blakey. But then he also served under Rashied Ali and Ornette Coleman. He’s also played with Ronald Shannon Jackson and David Murray.

His association with Coleman has a huge impact on his approach to music, and to this day you can still find traces of harmolodics in everything he plays. Tales Of Captain Black, Ulmer’s first solo lp from 1978, is virtually a Prime Time date, and one of their better ones at that.

After all that I just said, you’d think that this is a lead-up to yet another whack jazz record review. Nope, not this time. Instead, this is about the best blues release of 2007.

Bad Blood In The City is a record I’ve been admittedly a little late in picking up on. There’s been a lot of Katrina-related albums out there in the last couple of years that we’ve been trumpeting over here. Heck, this space has even covered Katrina-themed blues records before, most recently a pretty nice one by Bryan Lee. I acquired Ulmer’s latest not long after it’s May release, but somehow it slipped through the cracks of the Pico playlist until last month. Maybe subconsciously thought there all that was needed to be sung about Katrina has been done quite well by now.

I should have known better than that; this conversation is not complete without Blood’s input.

Like many other musicians affected by tragedy of seeing a great city and many of its residents left festering underwater for days, Ulmer put pencil to paper and immediately penned several songs to express his sadness, anger and frustration at the calamity. But it wasn’t until December, 2006 when he laid down these tracks in a marathon, three day session.

As explained by second guitarist and producer Vernon Reid (of Living Colour fame), waiting almost two years after the hurricane ravaged New Orleans made more sense because as media and government attention subside over time, this record could serve to keep people from forgetting about the victims.

Backed by Reid and other members of his band from his watershed Memphis Blood, The Sun Sessions blues recordings of 2001 and recorded in the Crescent City itself, the stage was perfectly set for raw, undiluted and passionate performances. And since Blood is raw, undiluted and passionate himself, he was clearly in his element for these recordings. And man, it shows.

“Survivors Of The Hurricane” is a groove that sounds like a tamer descendant of the free funk Ulmer was playing in his post-Prime Time days. Tame, that is, until Red cuts loose with an unhinged solo that harken back to his own Living Colour days.

“Katrina” is a elegy of sorts, which like “Survivors” is Ulmer’s blunt account of the catastrophe. The simple blues verses rise up to climatic choruses while Blood’s disgust over the handling of the event culminates in a “talk to the president!” rallying cry.

“Let’s Talk About Jesus” is about Ulmer going back to his gospel roots to find redemption though the Son of Man (and a well played, B-3 organ). Irene Datcher supplies reaffirming supporting vocals in one of the more lively, upbeat tracks of the record. Meanwhile, the feisty, post-modern blues “Old Slave Master” mocks the belated help provided by the government.

Ulmer’s five fine new compositions are supplemented perfectly by six well-chosen covers. These borrowed songs are all distinct, all fit Blood’s style well and nearly all fall neatly within the whole Katrina theme.

“Sad Days, Lonely Nights” has all the mesmerizing swagger you’d expect out of a Junior Kimbrough tune, except that Ulmer adds even more. His voice shot all to hell from the hurried, late-night recording sessions only serves to bolster his sincerity in ‘keepin’ it real’.

John Lee Hooker’s “This Land Is Nobody’s Land” is a natural for Ulmer, as Ulmer’s blues is plainly indebted to Hooker. In this rendition, Ulmer and his band give it a spooky, voodoo flavor. “Dead Presidents” is the lighthearted break in the somber proceedings and Ulmer and his crew band give Little Walter a run for his…err…dead presidents.

Howlin’ Wolf is represented here, too, with his “Commit A Crime,” replete with Ulmer and Reid’s twin guitar assault. Next up to be represented is Son house, with “Grinnin’ In Your Face.” Charlie Burnham gives the tune a back porch quality with his fiddle and mandolin.

Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues” goes all the way back to the 1920’s and with it being about the risks and adversity poor black people face living in flood prone areas, it was just as relevant today as it was then. The song is rendered as a gentle, jazzy blues.

I always felt that the best blues draw heavily on tradition while speaking at a gut level to the concerns and conditions of the here and now. Ulmer stepped up to the plate and delivered just that with Bad Blood In The City; The Piety Street Sessions. Blood may not be from New Orleans, but he proved here to be a true New Orleanian at heart.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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