GP Flashback: James Blood Ulmer, December 2003

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James Blood Ulmer is concerned with little else but the truth. A disciple of Ornette Coleman’s school of harmolodics, the avant garde guitarist is best known for his unison-tuned free jazz excursions. But Ulmer’s unassailable authenticity was a big influence on Living Color guitarist Vernon Reid, who came up with the idea of putting the crafty guitarist in a blues setting—which, amazingly, is one style Ulmer had not tackled.

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In 2001, Reid took Ulmer to the sacred ground of Sun Studios—where Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis cut fabled tracks—to record Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions. A collection of classic blues covers, the album won critical raves, but, within a week of its release, the attacks of September 11 hit New York, leading to the quick demise of Ulmer’s record label. Miraculously, a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Blues Recording followed, bringing attention to the project, and resulting in the album’s reissue by Hyena records—as well as funding for the second chapter of the planned blues trilogy.

That chapter is No Escape from the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions, which was tracked at Jimi Hendrix’s dream studio in New York City. Reid decided that this episode would reflect the migration of the blues from its rural Southern roots to the urban centers of the North. Tunes like “Going to New York” and “Bright Lights, Big City” also tell the story of Ulmer himself—a man who has lived the blues life for more than 60 years, but only began recording it at the genesis of the millennium.

Was it difficult or strange adapting your style to the blues?
No, but that’s because I don’t think of the concept of blues as any one person’s music. The concept of the blues is that everybody has something. It’s about the stories you’re telling—even though somebody might have told the story before. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf weren’t always singing their own songs. They were singing a lot of Willie Dixon’s songs, but they were still expressing themselves. If you live the blues, you can express it. The blues is the soul of a man. You don’t have to sound like anyone else.

You have a very distinctive voice as a player and as a singer—how do you work both disciplines to best deliver a song?
Jimi Hendrix is the only person I know who could chew gum, smoke a cigarette, and sing and play the guitar. I can’t focus like that. If I’m going to sing, I want to focus on singing. And when I’m going to play, it’s a whole other thing that doesn’t have anything to do with singing. You can’t sing while I’m playing the guitar. You wouldn’t be heard.

So what do you look for in an accompanist or co-guitarist?
Well, I’ve had a few people sit in on my music before, and I really liked what Ronnie Drayton played because I don’t know what it is, or how he does it. Vernon is the same way. I’ll be looking at his hands when he plays, and I still don’t know what the hell he’s doing [laughs]. I can deal with that, and it’s actually what I like about other players. If I know what they’re playing, why would I want to sit there and listen to it?

There are a lot of guitar sounds on the record. Can you identify which ones are yours, and which ones are Vernon’s?
I wound up playing my Gibson Byrdland. On one or two songs, we just miked it without plugging it in. I’d never done that before—it was Vernon’s idea. I also plugged into a fuzz machine, so I’ve got about three or four guitar sounds on the record. The rest of the sounds are coming out of Vernon’s guitar.

What subject comes up the most when you’re talking guitar with Vernon?
We talk about living things. We don’t actually talk about the instrument, per se, because we are both experienced harmolodic players, and, to be a harmolodic player, you have to understand what it means to be a harmolodic person. Harmolodics is a concept that everyone should explore.

Can you explain what it means to be a harmolodic person?
A harmolodic person is someone who can manifest himself in all kinds of different situations, whether it’s playing blues, rock and roll, jazz, and so on. Whatever is going on in the American sound, he can participate on some level.

But let’s say you got a jazz gig—wouldn’t you need to have a specific jazz background and some experience with the genre?
A harmolodic person has to learn all of the American sounds, and jazz is a part of the American sound. But you don’t really have to study it. You can learn how to play it by assimilation with people who know how to play it. I played with Art Blakey, Joe Henderson, and Ornette Coleman, and they’re all jazz musicians.

How does a harmolodic person create art?
When you create the idea, and then flow your art from your idea, then you are thinking harmolodically. You can say it’s your art because you created the feel that you took the art from. Here’s a good example of creating art harmolodically: I went to France, and this artist took us way out in the country where he had created this scene that he painted. He made the hills and the valleys, he planted flowers on the water, and he put the pond there in the first place. He created that landscape so he could paint it—which is what separates the concept of harmolodics from other concepts.

Interesting. Now can you explain the harmolodic concept as it pertains strictly to being a musician?
You would go out and learn every aspect of music before you call yourself a musician. You would be a musician because of a reason—not for no reason. You would be qualified to be what you are, because you are participating in all of the sounds of your land, and you would create music based on what you saw. You sow your seed, and then you reap your harvest. That’s your art.

What does it mean to be a harmolodic player in terms of scales and chords? Don’t they all go out the window?
A harmolodic player is different, but there are rules to playing harmolodically. I learned the rules from Ornette Coleman, and the rules are separate from the Western concept of playing. Scales and chords are eliminated in terms of the Western concept of what you use them for, and you don’t use chords and scales in linear situations. All of your rhythm works off a concept that is superimposed on the linear concept. Everything goes in a circle. Nothing is linear. That’s the harmolodic concept musically.

What is a harmolodic chord?
A harmolodic chord is a chord that cannot be inverted. Out of all the chords, there are only five that cannot be inverted, from which you can get major, minor, augmented, and diminished sounds.

Which five are those?
I don’t want to get into it because it would take all day to discuss those five chords. I don’t know how it goes on the piano or anything else, I only know how harmolodic chords work on the guitar. I can’t say what they are, because to me they are only fingerings—voicings of intervals.

Do alternate tunings fit in with this concept?
You can play in standard, or you can use all kinds of tunings to fit whatever you want to do. I have what is called a “harmolodic tuning,” where I tune all the strings in unison. This means that all six strings are tuned to the same note, and it can be any note. Then, the drone of the guitar allows all 12 notes to be heard under that same note.

How do you apply the concept of harmolodics to the blues, which relies on its own formulas?
I just did the same thing that all blues players do, which is to accompany the song. If you are singing about a rooster, then you play rooster sounds on the guitar. If you’re singing about a hound dog, then you try to sound like a hound dog. You play what is called the talking guitar—a call-and-response based on what you’re singing about. You never try to turn into a guitarist. If you listen to the old blues records, they’re about being a blues messenger, not a blues player.

Who were some of the urban blues players who influenced you?
I didn’t have to listen to the blues—the blues was my life. For example, back when I was a boy, I didn’t worry about listening to hillbilly music, because everything that came on the radio was hillbilly. I didn’t have to study it, because it was already there in my face. I didn’t have a record player then, and, to this day, I don’t have anybody’s music in my house. I’m not allowed to listen to Muddy Waters and “take” his playing. I only listen to people for concept. Every band I ever played in was not about the music, it was about the concept. You don’t have to play the music, you only need to play the concept of something. You don’t have to know who a song was written by—it could be anybody’s song based on anybody’s experience—you just have to understand the concept.

It’s interesting that you recorded “Are You Glad to Be in America?” again for this album.
Yes. I’ve recorded that song many times, and now I’ve got it in blues form. When I first made “Are You Glad to be in America?” I was in England, and it was an underground English hit. That’s how I got my recording contract with CBS. It’s a big question, you know, and no American official wants to ask it, but I’m going to sing that song until they do. I’m waiting for President Bush to get on CSPAN and say to the nation,”Are you glad to be in America?”

What significance does the title of No Escape From the Blues have in regards to your life story?
Making a blues record is something I had been denying all of my life. I’ve been drawing from the blues all along, but my mother and father forbid me to play it because they were church people. So I would always shy away from playing blues straight up, and that’s why I was learning other stuff. Finally Vernon came along with this blues idea, and I figured, I can’t escape it, so I might as well stop trying to dodge it. It exists. This record is proof, so that’s why I chose the title. Also, blues reveals the soul of a man, so you shouldn’t be afraid to deal with the blues, because you will find out where your soul is at. --Excerpted from the December 2003 issue of Guitar Player