Why now? The question has been raised frequently upon news of James Blood Ulmer's new album, Bad Blood In The City: The Piety Street Sessions scheduled to be released May 8, 2007 on HYENA Records. It's been almost two years since Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. So why would James Blood Ulmer record an album addressing the storm and its aftermath at this point in time? When producer Vernon Reid and HYENA were organizing the sessions that would ultimately become the new album, the decision seemed obvious. Ulmer had written a series of songs based on his interpretation of what had transpired in New Orleans. The songs resonated, however, on a much deeper level than just one man's viewpoint. They fearlessly spoke truth to power. Thus they had to be documented.
"To me, it seems as important to record this music now than right after Katrina. With the media no longer focused on it, this is when the tragedy starts slipping to the back of our collective memories, but we can't forget what happened down there. This is one small way to prevent it from fading to black," explains Vernon Reid. "Blood wrote these songs that are the essence of the blues. They're politically incorrect, they're sad and haunting, they're pissed off and on an existential level, they address the complicated concept that is America, which is something Blood's been dealing with since the beginning of his career."
Ulmer wrote the majority of Bad Blood In The City, while watching the events as they transpired on CNN in the days following Hurricane Katrina. During this period, Ulmer was still promoting his previous solo blues album, Birthright. During an appearance on WNYC's "The Leonard Lopate Show" in New York City, Ulmer caught everyone off guard when instead of performing the requisite material from his new album, he debuted three new Katrina meditations in their raw, skeletal form: "Survivors of the Hurricane," "Katrina" and "Let's Talk About Jesus." It was a powerful moment. Right then and there, the idea was born.
Fast forward to December 2006. James Blood Ulmer is gathered with "The Memphis Blood Blues Band" at Piety Street Studios in New Orleans. The seven-piece unit, who were named after the Grammy Award-nominated album Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions which they recorded in 2001, features Vernon Reid on guitar, Charlie Burnham on fiddle, David Barnes on harmonica, Leon Gruenbaum on various keyboards, Mark Peterson on bass and Aubrey Dayle on drums. This is the third album they're recording together as a band and the follow-up to the critically-acclaimed No Escape From the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions released in 2003. As a group, they're razor sharp from several tours of Europe over the past year.
With three days to record, the pressure is on, but it suits the urgency of the material. And more importantly, they're in New Orleans--the holy land. A vibe is palatable in the air. Ulmer alternately growls out direction as to the songs' arrangements and shouts his encouragement as they take form. He possesses a singular vision for the music that's shaped by his childhood playing gospel in the Baptist church, his early 20's working the Midwest juke-joint circuit with artists like Hank Marr and his later years on the avant-jazz scene immersed in Ornette Coleman's harmolodic theory. Ironically, blues as a pre-determined style of music means little if anything to Ulmer. But the "concept of the blues" is a whole other thing entirely. A lyric from Ulmer's "There Is Power In The Blues" might best set the tone: "Let's put the color back in the blues, way down here in New Orleans, let's start over just one more time, use the concept of the blues to feel our way around."
The sessions rage at Piety Street. Moments of spine-tingling soul music seethe from Ulmer and his band. Like a painting, but with music, a mural of the complex disaster that was Hurricane Katrina is put to canvas. "Survivors of the Hurricane" lurches forward on a wicked Clavinet groove. In three verses, Ulmer addresses the events more directly than the endless parade of stammering politicians and pundits: "Bad blood in the city, survivors of the hurricane, the neighborhood was covered with water, New Orleans what a shame." And the following: "Five days fighting for life, search for dry land no matter what the price, shootin' and lootin' was not a game, flood waters brought pain." Finally: "Here comes Johnny come lately with the army and the national guard, now that the storm was all over, they call themselves heroes for doing their jobs." Vernon Reid's guitar explodes in fury like a hornet's nest gone mad.
James Blood Ulmer's haunting dirge "Katrina" makes no excuses for the "rich and able" who left the poor behind in New Orleans. The track was cut in the dead of night and the witching hour is clearly present in the performance. It's a biting commentary and as direct as Ulmer's ever been in his songwriting. By the time his gospel gem "Let's Talk About Jesus" kicks in, everybody in the room is ready to seek a higher power. Irene Datcher is Ulmer's foil here. Together they blend sanctified refrains that take Ulmer back to his childhood circa South Carolina 1946.
To round out James Blood Ulmer's original material, Vernon Reid presented him with an additional six songs from the likes of John Lee Hooker, Junior Kimbrough, Son House, Bessie Smith, Howlin' Wolf and Willie Dixon. Each piece is a story that could potentially be found somewhere in the aftermath of Katrina, while digging further into the storm's underlying sub-text of race, poverty, crime and government accountability. Junior Kimbrough's classic, "Sad Days, Lonely Nights," is built on a grinding, hypnotic vamp. Ulmer immediately gravitated towards the song upon hearing it, declaring it "harmolodic to its core." His hoarse voice, run ragged during tracking, adds a spooky authenticity to the performance. John Lee Hooker's "This Land Is No One's Land" was another lyric whose sentiment Ulmer embraced completely. In his words, "it's talking about some stuff that's still happening today." Vocally, Ulmer turns the song into a modern social statement as relevant to the world now as the day it was written.
Willie Dixon's "Dead Presidents" adds a touch of comic relief with its squiggly instrumentation, jumping rhythm and playful rhymes that run down exactly what Lincoln, Jackson, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Cleveland and McKinley will get you in this world. David Barnes cuts loose with inspired harmonica work. The respite doesn't last long as the full force of the "Memphis Blood Blues Band" comes back hard and heavy with a sledgehammer reading of Howlin' Wolf's "Commit A Crime." A gently rambling country blues rendition of Son House's "Grinnin' In Your Face" is a dose of timeless blues wisdom punctuated by Charlie Burnham on fiddle and mandolin. It's a tale that can be interpreted numerous ways, but might certainly be relevant to those hit hardest by the storm.
Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues" is Ulmer's most traditional interpretation of a classic blues number presented on the album, while also serving as the most direct thread from past to present. Written in 1927, it was Smith's mediation on what it meant to be black and poor and forced to live in a place where whenever the waters of the Mississippi rose, its inhabitants stood to lose all they owned. Ulmer's version is nothing short of essential.
Closing out Bad Blood In The City is Ulmer's own "Old Slave Master." A brilliantly sardonic post-modern blues, it brings the record full circle tying together all of Hurricane Katrina's loose ends left dangling. It's clear that Blood's seen a side of this before and knows the routine all too well. The vitriol and spite found earlier on the album is replaced with a mocking cynicism. Like the best of his work, it's as progressive as it is ancient.
The last several years have seen James Blood Ulmer gaining renewed popularity around the world. In 2006, he toured Europe frequently with the "Memphis Blood Blues Band" leading to France's prestigious "Jazzman of the Year" award. His 2005 album, Birthright, was his first ever solo effort. Captured alone on voice and guitar, hazy and fractured songs like "Take My Music Back To The Church" and "Geechee Joe" added a new chapter to the solo blues idiom begun by artists like Robert Johnson, Son House and Leadbelly. The album has quickly become a modern blues cornerstone. It was awarded "Blues Album of the Year" in both Downbeat's "Readers Poll" and "Critics Poll," while receiving a "Blues Music Award" (formerly W.C. Handy Award) nomination for "Best Acoustic Blues Album" by The Blues Foundation. Subsequently, Ulmer began to receive high profile performance invitations, such as slots with Govt. Mule, Susan Tedeschi, Hal Willner's Neil Young Tribute Concert and Antoine Fuqua's documentary, Lightning In A Bottle, filmed live at Radio City Music Hall and presented by Martin Scorsese. In 2007, he will make his first ever appearance at festival of all American rock festivals, Bonnaroo.
Previously described by Village Voice music critic Greg Tate as, "the missing link between Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery on one hand, between P-Funk and Mississippi Fred McDowell on the other," James Blood Ulmer has made a career built on left turns and reinvention. Born and raised during segregation in rural South Carolina, Ulmer's earliest musical roots can be traced back to the Baptist church and the gospel music of which he was raised. In his early 20s, Ulmer went to Pittsburgh where he first began gigging as a professional musician on the Midwest's chitlin' circuit playing with R&B and organ jazz bands. It was after meeting Ornette Coleman upon moving to New York in the early 1970s that Ulmer truly found his voice. Working steadily alongside his harmolodic mentor in the fabled New York City downtown loft jazz scene, Ulmer's guitar work blossomed into a one-of-a-kind idiosyncratic style that transcended genre. He'd go onto release a string of acclaimed albums that remain classics to this day, including Tales of Captain Black, Freelancing, Black Rock and Odyssey. And now in the 21st century, Ulmer continues to progress as his most recent history finds him being recognized as an elder statesman of the blues. At the core, however, remains the one and only James Blood Ulmer.