JAMES BLOOD ULMER
Interview by Jason Gross (April 1998)
Thought there's been hundreds and thousands of hotshots who vowed to take the guitar to the next level after Jimi Hendrix broke the doors open, James 'Blood' Ulmer is one of the very few people to actually do this. His legend would be secure just from his work with Ornette Coleman as harmolodic music (combining harmony and melody) began to take shape. Ulmer really came to his own and then some as he began his solo careeer at the end of the '70's, putting together this distinct new wave of free jazz with bottom-bumping funk and gut-bucket blues as he began to make his own revolution in music, culminating with 1983's Odyssey. For years now, he's faithfully explored the possibilties that he's opened up with his own records as well as the Music Revlation Ensemble and now the James Blood Ulmer Blues Experience and a return to his Odyssey band (with violinst Charles Burnham and drummer Warren Benbow). Any thoughts that this concept may not sound as fresh today were laid to rest pretty quickly with an Odyssey show at the Knitting Factory where Blood, Burnham and Benbow burned up the stage- recorded evidence of this can be found on the recent Odyssey Reunion CD.
PSF: What led you to work with the Odyssey band again?
Well, it was really Charlie Burnham's idea. I was working in Third Rail, Music Revelation Ensemble and the Blues Experience. It was Charlie who insisted that we should go after this sound again. We're playing what I would call diotonic harmoladic music, meaning that the guitar, violin and the drums are totally playing in unison with equal voice. The guitar I have tuned to a unison tuning, away from the regular tuning of the guitar. No one plays the guitar tuned with all strings tuned to one note. The concept is about that, being that we are trying to play a special music that shows the difference in the structure of the instrument of getting the sound and having a base for what we're doing. Meaning that the guitar has to take care of a certain area and the violin is basically on top, the guitar is in the middle and the drums are on the bottom, playing in unison at the same time, harmolodically. That's what we were trying to do and that's what we were working on before. To start back working on that in that manner and with those instruments and making a good effort of continuing what we call harmolodic music where the instruments are in key, playing all 12 notes at the same time.
PSF: What's interesting about the band is that you have no bass player but you don't notice that when you hear the music. It's like there's no hole left there, no gaps.
We have a middle, a bottom and a top. It's what it's supposed to do. Once you make that connection, that's what's supposed to happen.
PSF: Going way back, you were in gospel group with father when you were young. What kind of bearing do you think that had on your later music?
That's WAY far back! (laughs) That's when I was a kid. I don't have too much recollection about that. We had a spiritual group. He (my father) was the leader and manager of that. I was in that group. I was waiting to get out of that group! Everything you do has a bearing on your music until you take a while and decide what you want to do with your music. What are you going to do with it? Once you decide that, everything that you've experienced is going to become what you're playing, what's coming out of you.
PSF: After that, you were in a band called Focus Novii. You did some gigs with Funkadelic back then?
I was playing in the 20 Grand Club and the Parliaments were the house band upstairs and I was playing in the jazz band downstairs. At the time, I thought I was much more advance than Parliament-Funkadelic. I was playing jazz and they were playing blues. (laughs) I should have thought about it because it turned out the other way.
When you learned how to play jazz, money didn't set the trend with how advanced you were with what you were doing. You went to school and you started out with church music then you play the blues and then you play avant-garde and then you play classical, first and last, and then you play what you want to play after that. That's how the school went. You'd pass a certain grade and then you'd go. That don't mean anything about how much money you make.
PSF: A lot of musicians took the same route. You think this is a necessary learning experience?
I don't think people are still keeping that same system going. I was think it was used for a while but I don't know about it. I think it's more or less a finance (decision). Everybody who plays music isn't really supposed to play music. You really could do something else much better. You ever hear anybody play music like that?
PSF: A lot of times!
Right, you hear them play but you really think they could do something else much better. (laughs)
PSF: I've heard you say that you've tried to get rid of scales and chords in music. Is this something ongoing for you?
I want the scales and chords to exist because without them, there would be no way to distinguish what you're playing. You playing a scale, you know what you're playing. If you wasn't playing a scale, you would have to find out what you're playing. A scale is a way that something is set up to do. There's another side to that, which is harmolodic again. That's where it's very valuable to know harmolodic music where you don't have to depend on the chords and the scales. That's what it means. But you have to know about it first. You can't NOT know about it.
PSF: Since we're talking about harmolodics, could you talk about your work with Ornette and how you each may have influenced each others' music?
Well, when you're working with someone close, like the way me and Coleman was, the thought is never what you're doing for each other. The thought is what what you're doing for what you're trying to do. Coleman always worked on something specifically and tried to take it to the highest level there is. So when you get through doing that, you ain't got time to be thinking about influencing somebody. You're trying to finish that piece of work.
One time I was writing the music to this play and he was into just directing it. He wanted to know every beat on the whole score. He puts everything to music and it was just incredible because (it was like) going through a needle and thread without leaving the hole. Just knitting it. It was amazing! Working with a person like that is just so amazing so you really don't think about who's influencing who. You're just thinking 'let's find out a way to get this.' He's definitely made me aware of harmolodic by making me aware of certain things. The coolest thing he told me (was) that I was a natural harmolodic player. He was one of the persons who could make you feel like what you were doing was so important. That's another thing that I got from Coleman- it's like someone who makes you feel that what you do is good. That's what he done.
PSF: You started as an instrumentalist but soon added vocals to songs- what led to the change?
After the first record I made, Tales of Captain Black, I started putting one song or two songs on every record I made. I figured that I do that one day because before I started playing and got to New York with it, I used to always be involved in singing music. I wasn't necessarily the singer but I was playing in bands where there was a singer. I always admired that kind of singing so I didn't want to cute it really loose. I always wanted to have a little singing because that's where I came from before I met these powerful guys. I always put one or two on a record until I had enough songs to play a gig singing songs.
PSF: With those early bands that you had when you started, did anything going on in other types of music like new wave or punk have any bearing on your own music?
Tales of Captain Black was produced by Coleman. With Freelancing, I don't know no band that sounds like that. I had Shannon Jackson playing drums, Calvin Weston, Olu Dara, David Murray, Amin Ali. That band was, I hate to say this, the first black band that entered into the clubs in New York City and did punk/funk/new wave. James Blood Band was the first black band to be playing that music in those clubs like Hurrah and Danceteria. No white band was playing shit like we were playing. I didn't hear no motherfuckers playing shit like we were playing. They let us in and we played with (Captain) Beefheart and Public Image and played in all those big clubs in New York. The shit was happening- nobody was playing that shit. I haven't heard anybody playing that shit yet- that's why I got to go back and play with Odyssey! (laughs) I had to go back 15 years to that!
PSF: Are You Glad to Be In America came out on different labels (Rough Trade and Artists House) with different mixes. Are you satisfied with either of the released versions?
To me, it's all the same music. I can hear through all of it. I don't hear the mix, I hear the music. The mix is very personal, like you see a woman and somebody might like her shoes or her dresses but you still see the woman. (laughs) I don't hear the different versions. I don't hear that. I mixed both of those records so it sounds like the same shit to me. I know they must have something there because we were trying to definitely get a different mix. I heard Ry Cooder say 'that first mix was the baddest thing. Nothing'll ever touch that.' He's slick, man! There might be something there but I can't hear that yet. I know it's something different. When I'm going in to make a record, I'm always trying to figure out how to make a certain mix. Once it gets to a certain point, I'm just agreeing with everybody. I'll be waiting for the co-producer to jump in there! I'd be trying to get the music straight and getting everything to line up and make sure anyone isn't playing what they're not supposed to be playing and get that out of the way. Then I'm ready for someone else to step in.
PSF: There was four year gap between Odyssey and next solo studio album though you did collaborations with David Murray and George Adams. Was there any reason for that?
Yeah, I was looking for a record deal! I was bumped off Columbia. But I don't have any problem with Columbia. I did my three records and they didn't pick up the option but that was good. If I had made a million dollars off of three, that would be enough. I didn't need any more. That was good- I'm glad they didn't take any more because I didn't make any money off the first three! (laughs) I didn't mind get bumped off there at all because I was trying to get into real serious music. They didn't want what I call real, serious music. All I know is that it was good that we got to do three records with them 'cause I could say that I had it on Columbia Records. Some people have made 10, 15 records on Columbia and they're still trying to pay for things. They did pretty good. They thought Odyssey was a really good record. In fact, it did better than they thought it was going to do.
I also understand the record companies. You're trying to sell something and make money and you got all these people coming up here and you have no idea what to go by except what is selling, you have to have a different kind of head for that. It's good that these people exist. That way, you might get something to go.
PSF: How do you objectively see the music you were doing at that time in the early '80's?
I was glad that we got the chance to do those records. It was right in the time and at the top of the time too. No one knew whether they was going to like that. Something came out of that era right there, in the '70's and '80's. I think it was starting to materialize in the late '60's and then it came out strong at the top of the '80's. The way that many bands survived during that era, with Beefheart and Public Image and all these guys that were into that zone, it was almost... holy! (laughs)
PSF: You've spoken about seperating aspects of your work with blues (Blues Experience), harmolodic and Music Revelation Ensemble in early '90s. Why did you break up your work/style like that?
Basically, I have a problem because I'm a musician and I like to play and ever since I've been playing music, I never worked with too many people. Too many people don't call me up to work. I figured that I had to create different kinds of situations where I could play in. I have to find a band to work in to play a special type of music. I have to create the type of band that I want to keep playing with. I used to play with rhythm and blues bands and I'm a die-hard so I don't want to give it up. I don't want to go all way over and start something and just stop something I've been doing. I just didn't want to stop it, I wanted to keep it going. I guess my whole music has been that way. I'd work on certain things and just try to keep it going and create enough activity. That's real hard, harder than making your own job!
PSF: Would you see yourself doing a convergence of these things again?
What makes that impossible is that playing the guitar in tune is different than playing the guitar out of tune. The greatness of one is not in music. Everyone thinks about the greatness of one. But music don't have one thing. Every one thing has the music- you're supposed to put everything in one thing. If I'm playing the blues or playing with Music Revelation Ensemble, I'm just as happy. But to express yourself, you can do it vocally or on at instrument or express yourself with gestures. You have to express how you feel about what you're doing some kind of way. Some have one, some have four!
PSF: With Third Rail, do you see that as a break from your other music?
I thought that it would have been a step in the right direction for what I was trying to do with the Blues Experience. I was just singing songs with that and getting together that project. I thought that I would get the chance to play with players that already had the direction themselves who could come together and do that one thing that I was talking about. Everyone with a concept and putting that concept together to make that one thing on their own without me saying 'you play this rhythm and you play this.' When the drums start, Bernie (Worrell) knows were to play! He gonna play something that you didn't know he knew about.
That's what I thought it was going to be. But I still have big hopes for Third Rail. I'm sure if we could ever get the paperwork to match the music, then we would be fine.
PSF: How did Harmolodic Guitar And Strings come about? That seems like kind of a departure from your other work.
Yeah, that was different. That was another extension of the Odyssey band. I was thinking that the string quartet would be my next move. It would be the string quartet with Odyssey. That would be powerful. You always have to do a little bit first. I did that with the string quartet. Then maybe an orchestra. If I would play with that concept, I would first play that music for people. So we won't write no more new music for now, we won't change the script until people really get to hear this.
PSF: With your recent tribute CD to Coleman Music Speaks Louder Than Words, what aspect of his work were you exploring?
What I was really trying to demonstrate on that record was to show how you could take a harmolodic melody-- I chose Coleman's music which I thought was direct harmolodic melody-- and play it on your instrument and get the same value out of it as he got from playing it on alto. Letting the guitar flow with the melody and get the same authority and flow into that feeling. Playing Coleman's music on the guitar- that was basically the kind of feeling I was trying to get. Meaning that the guitar controls all of the sound, not the horn. If you notice in this material, the guitar was dominating the sound more than the melody. Putting that melody inside the guitar and winding it up to play 'dee-dee-dee-dee'! (laughs)
But Coleman put a SOUND on that harmolodic music. I like his melodies, he can write and play some pretty melodies. He could make a note real meaningful. He like to play that way, every note has to be that way. He don't like to play notes that don't mean something.
PSF: How do you think his music has changed since you played with him?
I think the people that Coleman has been playing with have been changing, not the music. Coleman plays the same music, the same way. The only reason that he sounds different now is because of the people he plays with.
PSF: How do you think your playing style has evolved from Tales of Captain Black to now?
Odyssey, Music Revelations Ensemble, all those things happened after that. That's what came out of it. It's just a changing process. I don't think it's finished.
PSF: Hopefully not.
Right! (laughs) It's like if you turn wild horses loose, you always send them home. I hear some stuff that's different sometimes. I hear a 24-guitar orchestra. But who knows. Music just keeps evolving and going around. But there's not that many concept systems for it.
PSF: Are there other guitarists whose work you admire?
I like a lot of guitar players. It's hard to listen to a guitar player. I never really listen because when I was coming up, starting to play music, they didn't have no guitar. John Coltrane, Miles Davis, these brothers didn't have no guitar players. I didn't really listen to guitars. For now, I don't know. I like all guitar players I guess. I know Jimi Hendrix did something for the guitar. He could PLAY on that. He made a movement which was good and used that. He was maybe the last guy who did something for the guitar. That was an instrument that you couldn't play much. They used to let you play one or two choruses and that was it. That's all you had. Thanks to Jimi, we got to get in the house and play.
PSF: What did you admire about Hendrix?
The way he played, not his music. His playing was really good and it captured a lot. Everybody's trying to get that sound that he captured in that music. It captured more people than wanted to be captured. That sound that he was playing enabled guitar players to go out and get jobs. 'I'm Jimi Hendrix!' 'I'm Jimi Hendrix!' 'I'm Jimi Hendrix!' That's what every guitar player was saying. That sound was all you needed to have. It's not his music, it's the SOUND that's what happening.
I got to the sounds as the strongest part of that music. How he played it, sliding it between his legs and setting it on fire, I'm not into all of that! I'm not coming from there. To me, that's forbidden in my day. You weren't allowed to do stuff like that. You can't fuck a guitar! You can't set it on fire! If I did that, I couldn't get out of the way probably- I'd be thinking about the beautiful notes and then I'd catch on fire myself! (laughs)
PSF: You've worked a number of times with Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Ronald Shannon Jackson- do you find a certain chemistry there, playing with them?
That's some good brothers now. It's like you get left in the wilderness. When we get together to play, it's like we all got left in the wilderness! Finding out how to get out. We're playing together, it's like 'wow, where IS the leader?' (laughs) That's what that feeling is.
PSF: Could you talk about the projects of the American Revelation Music Production?
That's my production company. They put together everything I do. Since 1978. Our goal is to try to work with all of the artists who have played inside this company already and done something already. Ronnie Drayton, Bill Laswell, Jerome Brailey, Bernie Worrell, Amina Meyer, Cornell Rochester, Calvin Weston, Amin Ali, Charlie Burnham, Warren Benbow, Salieu Suso, Kewulay Kamara and Akua Dixon, who's a good person to know because she can get an orchestra together like that (snaps his fingers). Also, Gayle Dixon, John Blake, Ron Lawrence.
PSF: What about your work with the band Sacred Concept?
It's a concept of how to take the music and celebrate the praises of the Creator instead of a lot of other things. We have a kora player (Salieu Suso) and a guitar and a kimba (Kewulay Kamara). I think it will also have to come out of the realm of Odyssey. Odyssey has that revealing sound from that kora that's in there. A great horn for that sound is the digeridoo. We haven't done anything publicly yet with this group but we're trying hard. We've got the music and we're ready to record but ain't no record companies. It's something that I'll have to do myself and I would be glad to do that myself and produce.
PSF: How do you see jazz today?
It ain't going nowhere. The thing to do in music now is to celebrate the praises of the Creator. That's what anybody has to do with playing any instrument. Just try to celebrate this. That's all. No more songs about how you feel about the rain or how the band's looking or what you had for breakfast. It's time to celebrate the Creator.
PSF: What about other styles of music today? Any thoughts on music nowadays otherwise?
The way they're doing it now is wrong. They use the young kids for everything. They had to age you a little bit. If you ain't 30, you got to wait! Then when you're 40, you got to quit. But the Creator knows what he's doing, everyone else is crazy but he knows what he's doing.
But I like all types of music. I like everything I've heard because they was playing music. It's like meeting a family member, when you're hearing it and they're really trying to do it. When you're hearing it, you can't help it. You got to like that! I love all this stuff. All classical music, I don't know who the composer is but I love it. I know more about the music than I know what the composer's name is. I don't have to know the name of the person. It's like when you're listening to music at night and hear something good, you think 'I'm glad I don't have to compete with them tonight!'
PSF: How would you like people to remember and look back at you and your work?
A hard worker! That's it! (laughs)
See some of James Blood's favorite music
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