James “Blood” Ulmer
with Mark Peterson and Grant Calvin Weston
Of the many musicians that worked closely with Ornette Coleman, few have managed to forge a sound and approach as distinctive as guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer. Beginning in the early 1970s the South Carolina native—now 82—was the first guitarist to work with the legendary alto saxophonist and composer. That partnership paved the way for Coleman to make the electric guitar a central focus in his subsequent music, especially in his funk-oriented band Prime Time. Raised on church music, Ulmer didn’t begin playing jazz until the mid-60s when he worked in Hammond B-3 organ combos led by Hank Marr. After arriving in New York City in 1971 his scope broadened, leading to work with figures like Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Joe Henderson, Larry Young, and Rashied Ali, but it was his connection to Coleman that changed his music.
In the mid-70s Ulmer worked with saxophonist Arthur Blythe, but it wasn’t until 1978 that he finally made his first record as a bandleader with Tales of Captain Black, released on Coleman’s Artists House label and featuring the saxophonist as part of the quartet. From the start Ulmer merged the blues, psychedelia, funk, and soul with Coleman’s Harmolodic principles. After making a record for Rough Trade in 1980, which led to a surprising post-punk connection for the musician, he signed with Columbia, which issued many of his best recordings. Ulmer balanced driving instrumental tracks—where his improvisations summoned the spirit of Hendrix through their coloristic richness and narrative momentum—with stinging tone, and vocal appearances with a gruff yet soulful delivery straight out of the blues. His classic 1983 album Odyssey connected his music to the Black string band tradition thanks to the biting lines of violinist Charles Burnham. Ulmer also co-led the Music Revelation Ensemble with reedist David Murray, colliding febrile free jazz with deep funk grooves powered by drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and electric bassist Amin Ali.
Ulmer has continued to engage in shifting variants on his bracing musical formula in the decades since. In 2015 he collaborated with the Thing, the Scandinavian free jazz trio led by reedist Mats Gustafsson who had been inspired by the guitarist’s music, even recording a version of his tune “Baby Talk,” which gave a live album recorded at the Molde Jazz Festival in Norway its title. Ulmer leads a trio with long-time cohorts, bassist Jeremiah Hosea and drummer Grant Calvin Weston.