Blues is not the devil. It is the heart and soul of guitar legend James Blood Ulmer. Ulmer’s distinctive sound synthesizes disparate musical styles and has spawned a fierce following of sophisticated fans. But what makes Ulmer iconic is the personal. His latest album, Birthright, confronts the three Rs that haunt him—religion, race and relationships. Before Ulmer takes the stage this Saturday, at 8:30 p.m., I spoke with John Kramel, Tigertail’s director of operations about Ulmer’s upcoming performance at the Colony Theatre as part of Tigertail Production’s 2012-2013 season.
Q: Tigertail brings the unexpected and often the most provocative artists working in their field to Miami. How does the James Blood Ulmer Trio fit into this working philosophy?
John Kramel: Sometimes what unexpected and provocative can be is simply possessing a unique quality or set of qualities that are unique. For instance, Tigertail has, over the past several years, included in our season a guitarist of note. Some of these musicians are coming out of a traditional background, such as Honeyboy Edwards or James Cotton. What makes each of these guys unique is their age and their “legend.” Elliott Sharp, Leo Kottke and Bill Frissell are unique due to their unmistakable styles and virtuosity, although very different from one another.
Ulmer is totally unique, in that he combines both the traditional background with unmistakable style and virtuosity. Add to that the fact that he has gone way beyond the traditional background of his South Carolina roots to the world of free jazz and yet remains with one foot solidly planted in each.
In what ways has Ulmer’s history – his childhood — and geography — his birthplace — influenced his work and the broader blues community?
He was raised in a home where the view was that blues was the Devil. Much of his mission has been to dispel that view — in his own mind as well as that of others. Blues and gospel, of course, share much musically, and that is in his blood. He never had to “learn” how to groove. It was always there.
What role, if any, did race and culture factor into Ulmer’s development as a musician? Did his experiences give him insight or blind him, open doors or limit him as he evolved as an artist?
Race and culture were everything, in a way. The path open to him as a young man was an African American path, and it led him to Pittsburg, then Detroit and then New York City. Each of those places was the African American world. How did that limit him? Well, he didn’t go to music school and get a degree and go on to teach in a conservatory, such as a brilliant white musician may have done. But plenty of brilliant black musicians have done that. I don’t think Ulmer would think he has been limited very much.
What convinced you to bring Ulmer to Miami?
We have brought him here twice before. Each time, our audience has clamored for more. Also, we know he will produce great stuff. There is no doubt, as we have had with other artists at times. Doubt and taking chances are good, but not in each decision we make to bring an artist here.
For those who are not fans or familiar with blues or jazz, give us three reasons to experience a night with the James Ulmer Trio.
Three? Hmmm…. One: We should all attempt to open our ears to new experience. Two: There is always a first time to any interest or fascination. Three: Tigertail supporters are often interested in simply continuing to do that. Adding a body to our audience is a feel-good experience for many.
James Blood Ulmer Trio takes the stage at the Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd., Miami; tickets cost $25; tigertail.org.
This story also appears in the Miami Sun Post.