James "Blood" Ulmer | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

James "Blood" Ulmer 

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On Back in Time (Pi), released last month, guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer reconvenes his sporadically active group Odyssey the Band, featuring violinist Charles Burnham and drummer Warren Benbow. It's with this trio that Ulmer has best assimilated the various strains of music he's played in his lengthy career--the harmolodics-style improvisation he gleaned during his 70s stint with Ornette Coleman, the post-Hendrix rock he recorded in the 80s when Columbia Records tried (and failed) to market him as a guitar god, and the deep blues feeling that's always been at the core of his earthy music. Ulmer sketches out hazy song structures on the new album, playing rough-hewn licks that suggest funk or blues but with a more ambiguous, jazz-driven sense of harmony; Burnham's amplified violin is the secret weapon, filling in the cracks with acidic glissandi, liquid color, and sorrowful microtones. But even more remarkable is last year's Birthright (Hyena), the third in a series of blues-oriented albums he's made with producer Vernon Reid. Unlike the first two, it's a solo album, and though Ulmer eschews the technical perfection of many contemporary blues recordings he doesn't try to imitate the willfully raw sound of the Fat Possum stable either. Some of his originals use a 12-bar structure, but others, like "High Yellow," mostly hint at the blues, slithering forward on spindly, jagged, improvised tangles of notes. And when he tackles a couple of Chess-era blues classics, "I Ain't Superstitious" and "Sittin' on Top of the World," he recasts them as amorphous dirges that shoot off all sorts of emotional sparks when you listen closely. The real highlight of the album is hearing Ulmer play older originals solo; "Love Dance," a classic he's cut several times, becomes "Love Dance Rag," and this time he hints at the tune's slashing rhythms rather than directly stating them. This performance is the first time he's played a solo show in Chicago. Sun 2/12, 3:30 PM, Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, 100 N. Michigan, 312-742-1168. Free. All ages.

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