James Blood Ulmer to revisit Odyssey at Calgary Folk Music Festival

Posted by on 9 August 2016

James Blood Ulmer - photo by Julia Wesely

Perhaps it’s because he comes from the south. Or because of his musical prowess on guitar. Or maybe it’s that cool nickname. But James (Blood) Ulmer has often been described as a bluesman. For most of his career, the label didn’t make much sense. 

In fact, it wasn’t until the early 2000s, a full 40 years into his eclectic career, that the musically adventurous Ulmer began focusing on straight-up blues. It was only after some persistent coaxing from Vernon Reid, the Living Colour guitarist who would go on to record three blues albums with the now 76-year-old musician.

“I hadn’t done a record for awhile and I had been running from the blues for so long,” says Ulmer, in an interview from his home in Manhattan. “I didn’t think the blues was something I needed to do. Vernon said ‘Blood, you should do a blues record, man.’ He thought I could sing blues, not necessarily play blues on the guitar, but he thought I could really sing blues. So I said ‘OK, maybe I’ll try singing blues. I can sing gospel.’ We tried it and I liked it. He played the guitar. It came out OK, the Memphis Blood Blues Group featuring Vernon Reid.”

When Ulmer returns to Calgary for a mainstage performance Saturday at the Calgary Folk Music Festival, it will not be as part of that particular incarnation. Keeping track of all the musical shape-shifting Ulmer has undergone since he sang for his baptist-preacher father’s gospel act as a teenager in South Carolina can be a dizzying task. But even if he didn’t embrace the blues until he was 60, it seems to have haunted him throughout much of his career. In South Carolina, the blues were everywhere, but his father thought it was Devil’s music. When Ulmer signed to Columbia Records in the early 1980s — at that point already a major figure in free jazz and a disciple of Ornette Coleman — he was dropped after three records because label brass had expected him to record the blues. This has made 1983’s Odyssey, a riveting avant-garde jazz classic and the last album he recorded for a major label, a milestone for a man who has played on more than 50 recordings over his career. So perhaps it’s not surprising that, in recent years, Ulmer has taken to revisiting the record.

He will be coming to Calgary as the James Blood Ulmer Trio, backed by drums and violin and playing music from Odyssey, which esteemed music critic Robert Christgau once called “painfully beautiful stuff.”

“I just did it in Europe,” Ulmer says. “We did two festivals and it was a real good feeling to do that. That’s the same thing we are going to do in Calgary, with the same trio. I don’t listen to the record. What I do is I get the music off the record and hope I can play it different than I did 30 years ago. I will get closer to what I intended 30 years ago.”

The long road to Odyssey had Ulmer travelling through various music styles and cities throughout the late ’50s and 1960s. After leaving South Carolina and his father’s gospel music, he ended up in Pittsburg playing soul and jazz before making his way to Columbus, Ohio, where he accompanied jazz organ players, and finally to Detroit, where he fronted various bands.

By early 1970s, he says he was ready to go to New York City and “play my own music.”

In 1971, Ulmer  met Ornette Coleman and began touring and recording with the legendary free-jazz musician and composer. Coleman introduced the guitarist to the idea of harmolodics, a somewhat perplexing musical philosophy that he described as “the rhythms, harmonics and tempos are all equal in relationship and independent melodies at the same time.”

“Coleman told me, at that point, that I was a natural harmolodic performer,” Ulmer says. “So that’s all I needed to know. I didn’t have to do anything but be myself.”

Ulmer said the unique tuning that he adopts for his guitar came to him in a dream in the 1970s, a time when Coleman was “drilling me so hard. He wanted to find out how the guitar would go with his music. He wanted to have a guitar. In fact, at that time in the early ’70s, everybody was trying that. All of the jazz players wanted to have a guitar player.”

But the harmolodic philosophy goes beyond specific instruments, says Ulmer.

“Coleman separated music from instruments,” Ulmer says. “He made me realize that music really was before instruments. An instrument is made to play a certain way, but music is not. There’s a difference between playing an instrument and playing music. I say it like this, if you were looking for God, you will find God in the heart of a believer. If you were looking for music, you would find music in a believer’s heart. He would have to take the music from his heart and find something to express it with. Sometimes a musician gets hung up with how an instrument is made and never really gets a chance to express music exactly like he feels it but the way the instrument is made to play.”

The James Blood Ulmer trio plays Saturday and Sunday at the Calgary Folk Music Festival. He plays the main stage Saturday at 6:30 p.m.