Thursday, June 16, 2005

James Blood Ulmer – Birthright (Hyena, 2005)

James Blood Ulmer’s career was in a bit of a mid-life crisis before his abrupt switch from Ornette influenced avant-garde jazz musician to grizzled bluesman. To be fair though, the blues had always played a part in Ulmer’s music (as had funk and soul) and his shaky, world weary vocals had appeared on a few prior albums as well. On this disc, Ulmer strips his music to the bone. Armed with only an electric guitar and flying solo, he interprets some blues standards and his own originals, some of which present some hard-hitting and honest views about race in America.

Things start off in a pretty mellow vein as Blood displays his gospel roots in “Take My Music Back to the Church.” “I Ain’t Superstitious” goes the cover route with a well-known song that has been recorded by many bluesmen. Things start to get really interesting with Ulmer’s songs that display his views on race relations. He has always had an element of social criticism in his music as some of his album titles like Are You Glad to Be in America and America, Do You Remember the Love? show and “White Man’s Jail” on this disc is certainly no different. “Geechee Joe” is a song that appears to be about Ulmer’s grandfather who “didn’t want to work unless he was boss, ‘cause he didn’t want to work for the white man.”

A performance of the ancient standard “Sitting of Top of the World” and a couple more gospel-ish rave-ups close out the disc. Ulmer is too advanced a guitarist for the music to be less than interesting, and his lyrics are fascinating at times. Although I did enjoy this disc, I wish he had recruited a full band that he could interact and improvise with. That said, there’s no denying the immediacy and power of the music here.

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