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Blood and Piety 

James Blood Ulmer can turn out a searing blues record like nobody's business. His past three albums, 2003's No Escape From the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions, 2005's Birthright and this year's Bad Blood in the City: The Piety Street Sessions all scratch and howl like unearthly black cats dragged to the crossroads. With six covers on Bad Blood in the City culled from the rich, muddy history of rural Southern blues, his pedigree as a down-home swamp dog could easily pass examination. Ulmer's success at inhabiting the blues, though, only scratches the surface of the story.

Although his entry into music was via playing gospel in South Carolina churches where he was raised, after moving to New York City in the late '60s, Ulmer quickly picked up on the soaring sounds of the contemporary jazz scene. He played guitar with acts like Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in the early '70s before hooking up with visionary Ornette Coleman -- the first electric guitarist to tour and record with Coleman, who later worked the guitar heavily into his fusion experiments. Ulmer picked up on Coleman's harmolodic style or system -- a broad and slightly bent way of tuning, playing and dealing with harmony and melody that opens up jazz improvisation to astonishing results like Coleman's own famously chaotic recordings.

Ulmer recorded several solo albums that experimented with marrying avant-garde jazz with blues rhythms, blending the two -- one allegedly so cerebral and the other so earthy -- in a way that never seems studied or forced. His blues albums, all produced by guitar wizard Vernon Reid, share the same or even more fierce immediacy. A rural picker he's not. Nor is he a citified electric noodler. Rather than sounding like he sold his soul at the crossroads for his talent, it sounds instead like he just opened up the gates of hell and let the devil take the stage.

Bad Blood in the City comes across as more apocalyptic than usual, recorded in three days at Piety Street Studios in December of 2006, obviously following Katrina. Three original songs, responses to the storm, plus six classic blues covers Reid brought to Ulmer comprise the record. It makes for a well-balanced, articulate and absolutely scorching response to the tragedy. The three originals are unforgiving; the covers round out the product with a more oblique address. When I spoke to Elvis Costello last year about River in Reverse, his collaborative album with Allen Toussaint that served as both a tribute to Toussaint and a commentary on the aftermath of the storm, we talked at length about his choice of songs -- a pretty eclectic collection from the cobwebby corners of Toussaint's back catalog -- and why he'd selected those from a sprawling body of work. Costello said that sometimes songs found their moment years or even decades after they were written, and it's true that one of the reasons River in Reverse was such a successful album was that each song spoke, somehow, to the moment in history when it was written, but also to the climate of 2006, when it was released. The choices Reid and Ulmer made on Bad Blood in the City are similarly keen, as with their take on John Lee Hooker's "This Land Is No One's Land," and especially so on Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues," written in the wake of the 1927 Mississippi floods (also recorded, to great effect, by Irma Thomas last year). The scorching, jagged-edged fullness of Ulmer's band adds an extra dimension to the songs, which were all originally recorded fairly minimally. His take on the late Junior Kimbrough's meditative "Sad Days, Lonely Nights" is a thunderous explosion of crashing, sparking guitar, sending out balls of heat lightning and raw-voiced menace.

"To me, it seems as important to record this music now than right after Katrina. With the media no longer focused on it, this is when the tragedy starts slipping to the back of our collective memories, but we can't forget what happened down there. This is one small way to prevent it from fading to black," says Reid in a Hyena Records press release. "Blood wrote these songs that are the essence of the blues. They're politically incorrect, they're sad and haunting, they're pissed off and on an existential level, they address the complicated concept that is America, which is something Blood's been dealing with since the beginning of his career."

The three originals, "Katrina," "Survivors of the Hurricane," and "Let's Talk About Jesus," were all written early on in the months after the storm while Ulmer watched the situation in New Orleans unfold on TV. At the time, he was still promoting 2005's Birthright, and surprised viewers when he debuted the three songs during a live TV appearance on the Birthright tour. The tracks are lyrically accusatory, Katrina-specific and, with Reid's blistering guitar joining Ulmer's, audibly punishing, but at the same time, they keep the timeless tone of the blues. In 60 more years, "Katrina" would be as listenable as "Backwater Blues" is today, although hopefully the times won't demand it.

click to enlarge James Blood Ulmer's latest release was recorded at Piety Street Studios and includes new songs about Katrina. - BILL DOUTHART
  • Bill Douthart
  • James Blood Ulmer's latest release was recorded at Piety Street Studios and includes new songs about Katrina.
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