When it came time for James Blood Ulmer to record his third album for Columbia Records in 1983, execs came to him with an ultimatum: Record a blues album, with covers of songs by bigger names like Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Springsteen, or his next release for the label would be his last.
"I refused, because my contract was for my music," Ulmer recalls. "So I decided to put the most diverse group together that I could think of at that time, which was guitar, violin, and drums -- no bass. I didn't remember nobody recording a record with no bass. That was my revenge for them firing me."
The result was Odyssey, featuring violinist Charles Burnham and drummer Warren Benbow and now considered by many to be Ulmer's masterpiece. The album is an utterly unique amalgam of avant-garde jazz, cutting-edge rock, driving funk, and, despite Ulmer's protests, a heavy dose of gutbucket blues influence straight out of his native South Carolina. The trio he gathered for that influential outing has continued to work together sporadically over the decades since, and will perform together as part of Montgomery County Community College's Lively Arts series Saturday.
Ulmer's aversion to the blues stemmed from his upbringing in the church. His parents disapproved of the music, though the young Ulmer would sneak out to hear local bluesmen like Johnny Wilson and Alton Smith. "Them guys used to play some gritty music," Ulmer, now 77, recalls. "I used to curl up under Johnny Wilson's house and listen to him play with a glass bottle and drink corn liquor, but I couldn't let my mother know I was doing that. I'd get beat if I tried to play the blues."
Ulmer began his own musical career singing with the Southern Sons, a child gospel group formed by his father that would tour churches across the South opening for famous acts like the Mighty Clouds of Joy and the Dixie Hummingbirds. When he came of age he moved first to Pittsburgh and then to Columbus, Ohio, playing with the doo-wop group the Del-Vikings and in soul-jazz organ trios. In Detroit during the late 1960s, he formed his own group, Focus Novi, making his first ventures into free improvisation.
This new form of expression began creeping into his more straight-ahead jazz sideman gigs, which meant, he recalls with a chuckle, that "I would get fired by every band that hired me. I enjoyed it because I knew what I was reaching for. I didn't have no name for it, but I wanted to play creative music."
Shortly after moving to New York in 1971, Ulmer made what would be the most important connection of his musical life when he met the groundbreaking jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Ulmer became a lifelong advocate, almost an evangelist, for Coleman's musical philosophy of harmolodics, a difficult-to-define approach that loosely means that melody, harmony, and rhythm are equal and independent, leading to a unique freedom of voices.
"Coleman told me I was a natural harmolodic player," Ulmer explains.
"That meant I didn't have to do anything except be myself. I don't play harmolodic music; I'm a harmolodic person. I can take harmolodics and apply it to any form of black music and take the poison out of it."
Coleman produced Ulmer's 1978 debut, Tales of Captain Black, initiating a stunningly creative period that culminated in his three Columbia records in the early 1980s. He's remained prolific and unpredictable since, and continues to lead several different projects: the Music Revelation Ensemble, the Black Rock Trio, Freelancing (with Philly drummer and fellow Coleman alum G. Calvin Weston), and, since Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid encouraged him to embrace the blues in 2001, the Memphis Blood Blues Band.
Even when playing the blues, though, Ulmer says he's maintained the spiritual core in his music since he first picked up the guitar nearly seven decades ago. "I want to please God with my music," he says. "If you were in church on Sunday afternoon playing rotgut blues music on the guitar, you would get thrown out. When I play harmolodic blues, it's not intimidating to spirituality. I'm trying to play so God could be sitting in the front row listening. Can you imagine God sitting at a Beyoncé performance?"