Produced by Vernon Reid
Including the Tracks: Take My Music Back To
The Church, I Ainít Superstitious, Geechee
Joe, I Canít Take It Any More & Sittiní On
Top Of The World
ìBirthright, indeed. Here, it’s clear that Ulmer was born to play with fire.î
ñ Steve Dollar, Time Out Chicago
ìThe number of bonafide original contributions to the musical language of the blues in the last 30 years are as scarce as hair on a Mississippi bullfrog. Junior Kimbroughís All Night Long and Otis Taylorís Respect the Dead come immediately to mind. One must now add James Blood Ulmerís Birthright to this short list and it may be the most groundbreaking of all.î
ñ Dave Rubin, Play Blues Guitar & Guitar Player Magazine
ìÖthese dozen tracks sound like they were played by the holy offspring of Chuck Berry and Robert Johnson… by far the most personal blues album the guitarist has ever recorded.î
ñ Robert Fontenot, OffBeat Magazine
James Blood Ulmer is in the midst of a career revivalóan artistic renaissance if you will. A new generation of music fans have discovered his music, while simultaneously longtime fans from throughout his 40-year career have shown a renewed fascination with the iconoclastic genius. His previous two recordings, Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions and No Escape From The Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions led to much recognition, including a Grammy Award nomination, Rolling Stone Magazine ìBest Albumî honors, a performance at Martin Scorsese blues celebration concert at Radio City Music Hall and high profile appearances with the likes of Government Mule, Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks. On Birthright, his latest studio album, Ulmer goes it alone. Itís just he and his guitar singing and playing 12 of the most stark, personal and spellbinding songs heís ever recorded. The blues hasnít sounded this fresh in a long, long time. Itís clearly the work of an American music legend continuing to reinvent himself, while remaining as relevant today as at any point in his long and distinguished career.
In a review of Robert Johnson: King of The Delta Blues Singers for Downbeat Magazine in 1962, music critic Martin Williams wrote: ìThe 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.î And here, nearly 70 years after Robert Johnsonís mythical recording sessions that bared those infamous sides, James Blood Ulmer continues down the path that Williams quite eloquently described. Birthright is James Blood Ulmerís 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 fatherís knee in the segregated South, singing gospel in the Baptist church and struggling to find the balance between the Lordís word and more earthly matters of the flesh. The 12 songs featured here, in each and every instance, are indeed James Blood Ulmerís Birthright.
ìIím gonna take my music back to the church where the blues was misunderstood, some people think that itís the song of the devil, but itís the soul of the man for sure,î moans Ulmer on the albumís opener ìTake My Music Back To The Church.î A precedent is immediately set. Ulmer is not about to take a lighthearted romp through tired blues clichÈs, but is instead committed to a soul-bearing transformation. If Ulmerís 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 a lifeís worth of living the very experience, exploring its depths, searching for resolve and often reclaiming the music as his own.
The taleís been told time and again of Ulmerís 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 while growing up that the blues was the devilís music. This is a subject thatís 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 ìThe Evil One,î he declares ìGod 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.î Itís a story of Adam & Eve, God and the Devil, but where most post modern blues of the present day cites the devil because itís a mainstay of the 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. 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 heíd 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 Ulmerís 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 bluesóas timeless as Son House, Leadbelly and Lightniní Hopkins, yet informed by the past half century of jazz theory and set within his own inimitable guitar tuning.
Over the last three albums, Ulmerís voice has come to the forefront. Heís 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 ìI Ain’t Superstitious,î one of two cover songs on the record, Ulmer injects his own character and life into the lyrics, while on the slow, haunting blues of ìWhite Manís Jail,î he conveys through pain, hurt and muted pride: ìI ainít never been in no white manís jail, my mama didnít send me to their school and I ainít never, never, never learned the white manís rule.î
In the midst of Birthright are two beautifully wistful songs, exposing yet another side to Ulmerís complex personality. They each suggest wisdom gained from lifeís proverbial struggle. The first is a reworking of a classic Ulmer number from his 1981 album, Free Lancing, entitled ìWhere Did All The Girls Come From?î 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 Ulmerís tribute to his grandfather, ìGeechee Joe.î A folk song at its core, it tells of Geechee Joeís influence on Ulmerís life; an inspiration that resounds to this day. The lyrics are simple on paper, but beautiful, 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.
ìThe Devilís Got To Burnî brings James Blood Ulmerís first ever solo date to a close by re-addressing the ongoing theme of the devilís lure, and within the context of the blues, finding a way for the divine to prevail. Ulmerís ominous howl and cackle fade to silence, leaving weird abstractions hanging in the air.
Birthright gets closer to the root of James Blood Ulmerís genius than any album in his long and distinguished discography. Itís 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. Itís even more so when one considers that Ulmer is coming off two commercially successful records that would have him nominated for a Grammy Award (Memphis Blood) and selected as one of Rolling Stone Magazineís 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, itís 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 lifeís experiences through the blues. These songs are his right, possession and privilege. This is pure James Blood Ulmer.