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Bad Blood In the City: The Piety Street Sessions

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Album Review

For those who were rightfully seduced by James Blood Ulmer's stripped-to-the-bone 2005 Birthright recording, where the great harmolodic jazz, blues, and funk guitarist played a single guitar and stomped on a board and played the blues like a Delta hoodoo shaman, Bad Blood in the City will come as quite a shock. The session was recorded at the Piety Street Studios in New Orleans, and Blood made use of its atmospherics and its history as a killer room for recording the Crescent City's second-line rhythms, electric blues, and swampy funk. Once more, the album was produced by Vernon Reid — who plays a hell of a lot of guitar here — and Ulmer chose his old friend from the Odyssey days, Charles Burnham, to play electric violin and mandolin, along with a cast that also includes vocalist Irene Datcher, bassist Mark Peterson, harmonica player David Barnes, drummer/percussionist Aubrey Dayle, and keyboard boss Leon Gruenbaum. The tune mix is wild, ranging from the tough hard funk of the opener, "Survivors of the Hurricane," to a cover of Junior Kimbrough's "Sad Days, Lonely Nights" that keeps its blues yet gets deeply funked up with the roiling guitars of Ulmer and Reid, Barnes' spooky harmonica, violin, piano, clarinet, and a B-3!

Then there are the originals, such as Ulmer's blues tune "Katrina," which echoes "Flood in Mississippi." It feels like some strange cross between R.L. Burnside, John Lee Hooker, and Ulmer at his deepest, most soulful and driving. Reid fills in the spaces and the entire tune is a wall of beautifully chaotic yet utterly sophisticated sound. He echoes the hypocrisy that some rather famous ministers railed on the city as being a den of sin and the hurricane being God's vengeance. He answers the tune with a soul-gospel tune called "Let's Talk About Jesus," where he and Datcher do their own form of preaching about mercy, grace, healing, and forgiveness. Blood's sermon with its killer B-3 break in the middle and whomping funk bassline is infinitely more interesting and danceable than Jerry Falwell's. Blood also answers Woody Guthrie's ghost on John Lee Hooker's "This Land Is Nobody's Land," while he agrees with him completely, putting the swamp blues up to Guthrie's folk music and commenting on the times as they are. Other covers include Willie Dixon's "Dead Presidents," Son House's "Grinnin' in Your Face," Howlin' Wolf's "Commit a Crime" (a wailing stomper that does the original justice), and the traditional "Backwater Blues," with a radical arrangement. The final cut is a barrelhouse number with wily guitars and crying harmonica and scratching called "Old Slave Master," where Blood spits his rage in a blues shouter that could get a corpse to get up out of the box and start throwing down on the dancefloor. The creative place Blood finds himself in his partnership with Reid is yielding great fruit. This album is the strongest of their collaborations thus far, and is a wild ride through blues, R&B, and hard-driving distorted and feedback-laced — yet utterly musical — New Orleans funk. It's a monster.


Born: February 2, 1942 in St. Matthews, SC

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s

Free jazz has not produced many notable guitarists. Experimental musicians drawn to the guitar have had few jazz role models; consequently, they've typically looked to rock-based players for inspiration. James "Blood" Ulmer is one of the few exceptions -- an outside guitarist who has forged a style based largely on the traditions of African-American vernacular music. Ulmer is an adherent of saxophonist/composer Ornette Coleman's vaguely defined Harmolodic theory, which essentially subverts jazz's...
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Bad Blood In the City: The Piety Street Sessions, James Blood Ulmer
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