James "Blood" Ulmer
Millennium Park, Pritzker Pavilion; Sun 12
The late jazz organist Jimmy Smith used to grunt along with his solos. Pianist Mose Allison can be heard humming off-key during the instrumental breaks on his records. Listen closely and you can hear Buddy Guy going “aaahhh” while he’s shredding the strings. But James “Blood” Ulmer may have topped them all: His 2005 CD, Birthright, was recorded so well that you can hear him drawing breath. This wasn’t hard to do—when your album consists of just you and your guitar, alone, sometimes even the pop machine in the lobby can be heard playing backup.Ulmer’s sound is so singular that even stray background disruptions can’t upstage him.
The experimental-jazz pioneer has been backtracking to the blues lately with his last few discs, starting with 2000’s chilling Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions, for which he channeled John Lee Hooker’s spirit with uncanny accuracy (and Hooker was still alive, too!), then stopping to lighten the mood with the almost vaudevillian “Too Lazy to Work, Too Nervous to Steal.” Since then, he’s made a continued effort to, as Birthright’s first track says, “Take My Music Back to the Church.” That he does, but it sounds like he made a pit stop to Mars on his way there.
Like many avant-garde musicians, Ulmer started out in the ’60s playing more earthbound sounds with blues and R&B bands. Now he’s crossing back over those same tracks he came from, bringing his harmolodic trick bag with him and throwing in unearthly guitar runs at the damndest moments. It beats the holy hell out of the usual Hendrix imitators claiming to be the future of blues.—James Porter