Birthright: A right, possession, or privilege that is one's due by birth.
In a review of Robert Johnson: King of The Delta Blues Singers for DownBeat Magazine in 1962, music critic Martin Williams wrote: The best blues deal in their own way with basic human experience, with things that all men in all times and conditions try to come to terms with." And here, nearly 70 years after Robert Johnson's mythical recording sessions that bared those infamous sides, James Blood Ulmer continues down the path that Williams quite eloquently described. Birthright is James Blood Ulmer's first ever solo album. Just James Blood, alone, singing and playing his blues with his fears, demons, prayers and history all laid out before him. Once revered as a free jazz, black rock guitar master, Ulmer has come full circle, acknowledging the boy he once was who grew up playing guitar on his father's knee in the segregated South, singing gospel in the Baptist church and struggling to find the balance between the Lord's word and more earthly matters of the flesh. The 12 songs featured here, in each and every instance, are indeed James Blood Ulmer's Birthright.
I'm gonna take my music back to the church where the blues was misunderstood, some people think that it's the song of the devil, but it's the soul of the man for sure," moans Ulmer on the album's opener Take My Music Back To The Church." A precedent is immediately set. Ulmer is not about to take a lighthearted romp through tired blues cliches, but is instead committed to a soul-bearing transformation. If Ulmer's two previous records, Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions, and No Escape From the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions, found him finally confronting history and exploring the songs of the great American blues forefathers, then on Birthright, Ulmer is submerging himself in over a half century's worth of living his very own blues' life, exploring its depths, searching for resolve and personally reclaiming the music.
The tale's been told time and again of Ulmer's ongoing conflict between his love for the raw, primal release offered by the blues and the deep-rooted guilt instilled by his mother who made clear to him growing up that the blues was the devil's music. This is a subject that's referenced throughout Birthright. Ulmer is continually searching for a way to impart the blues with the notion of sanctity and redemption. On the snarling, slashing and guttural stomp of The Evil One," he declares God called all of the Angels to show him what he had done, and they all bowed down to man except the devil, the jealous one." It's a story of Adam & Eve, God and the Devil, but where most post modern blues of the present day cites the devil because it's mandatory vernacular, Ulmer addresses it with no pretense. He means every word he sings.
James Blood Ulmer does not suffer fools gladly who spend countless hours in the studio trying to procure the perfect recording. Every track on Birthright was recorded in one and two takes. The sessions wrapped in two days. Fortunately, producer Vernon Reid (back to produce his third album for Ulmer) was a proponent of this approach. Ulmer would run the tune down once before letting the control room know he was ready to record. From that point on he'd seemingly transport himself to a different existential plane, rocking back and forth, audibly groaning, while excavating magical shards of tangled guitar notes from his black Gibson Birdland. The pairing of Ulmer's voice and guitar, with all other instruments stripped away, is revealing in itself. His vocal phrasing, often behind the measure of his own rhythms, creates a counterpoint as distinct as any in the history of the blues -- as timeless as Son House, Leadbelly and Lightnin' Hopkins -- yet informed by a penchant for jazz improvisation and set within his own inimitable guitar tuning.
Over the last three albums, Ulmer's voice has come to the forefront. He's begun to garner equal recognition as a singer as he had in the past for his guitar prowess. His deep, husky vocals shimmer with a natural vibrato and resonate with emotion. On the Willie Dixon classic I Ain't Superstitious," one of two blues standards on the record, Ulmer injects his own character and life into the lyrics, while on the slow, haunting blues of White Man's Jail," he conveys through pain, hurt and muted pride: I ain't never been in no white man's jail, my mama didn't send me to their school and I ain't never, never, never learned the white man's rule."
In the midst of Birthright are two beautifully wistful songs, exposing yet another side to Ulmer's complex personality. They each suggest wisdom gained from life's proverbial struggle. The first is a reworking of a classic Ulmer number from his 1981 album, Free Lancing, entitled Where Did All The Girls Come From?" A funky, up-tempo, party jaunt in its original form, these many years later the song feels remorseful, like a lament for personal truths only now understood. The second is Ulmer's tribute to his grandfather, Geechee Joe." A folk song at its core, it tells of Geechee Joe's influence on Ulmer's life; an inspiration that resounds to this day. The lyrics are simple on paper, but poetic, strong and moving when Ulmer sings them. This kind of pure emotional honesty takes courage. A notoriously elusive character, Ulmer was particularly proud of this song during the sessions.
The Devil's Got To Burn" brings James Blood Ulmer's first ever solo date to a close by readdressing the ongoing theme of the devil's lure, and within the context of the blues, finding a way for the divine to prevail. Ulmer's ominous howl and cackle fade to silence, leaving weird abstractions hanging in the air.
Birthright gets closer to the root of James Blood Ulmer's genius than any album in his long and distinguished discography. It's a brave record for an artist to make this far into his career. To strip the music bare and leave nowhere to hide, thus presenting the songs in an utterly transparent form is always a risky move. It's even more so when one considers that Ulmer is coming off two commercially successful records that had him nominated for a Grammy Award (Memphis Blood) and selected as one of Rolling Stone Magazine's top 50 albums of 2003 (No Escape From the Blues). But then James Blood Ulmer has never played by the rules or aspired to convention. If a renascence is in the cards, it's going to be on his terms. He is an artist completely driven by the muse and will chase it to the furthest corners of his soul to manifest its cry. On Birthright, James Blood Ulmer looks deep within to come to terms with life's experiences through the blues. These songs are his right, possession and privilege. This is pure James Blood Ulmer.
James Blood Ulmer's Birthright will be released May 24th, 2005 on HYENA Records.