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James “Blood” Ulmer and Vernon Reid: Harmolodic Blues

James "Blood" Ulmer and Vernon Reid
James "Blood" Ulmer and Vernon Reid

When Ornette Coleman tries to explain his harmolodic theory, he sounds as if he’s talking about the most modern concept around. But the more he talks about a performer treating the HARmony, the rhythmic MOtion and the meLODIC lines equally and taking them wherever inspiration leads at any moment, the more it sounds like he’s describing those pre-1950 rural bluesmen who did just that.

The key instrument for old bluesmen such as Charley Patton, Robert Pete Williams and Mississippi Fred McDowell was the guitar, of course, and it became a crucial factor in Coleman’s harmolodic music as well. Two of the most important guitarists in the harmolodic movement are James “Blood” Ulmer and Vernon Reid, and recently they collaborated on three albums that make the blues underpinnings of harmolodic music more explicit than ever.

Reid served as producer and guitarist on two of Ulmer’s solo albums-2001’s Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions and 2003’s No Escape from the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions-and as producer of Ulmer’s unaccompanied 2005 project, Birthright.

Those old solo singer-guitarists were likely to change the chords, the melody, the tempo, even the number of bars with each chorus, and when it worked there was something thrilling about the effect. But when blues and jazz musicians started playing in bands, they assumed they needed to regularize the changes, the beats and the number of measures so they could play together. No, Coleman argued, you can preserve the transporting freedom of those old bluesmen in an ensemble, if everyone just listens hard enough. Ulmer and Reid helped him prove his point.

“It’s fair to say that a certain kind of blues is the foundation of the harmolodic thing,” Ulmer says. “If it’s free music, coming from the soul, playing any kind of changes and any number of bars, going somewhere else on a moment’s notice, that kind of blues is really ground zero for harmolodic music.”

“The blues influence is very central to harmolodic expression,” Reid agrees, “even if it isn’t outright in your face. Ornette came out of this Texas shouting tradition; the blues were his underpinning, but people couldn’t accept it. He was physically threatened because of the way he expressed himself, but he had to find that different way. I don’t think the whole harmolodic theory can be understood unless you get the blues connection, however abstracted. That’s the reason I even approached Blood about a doing a blues record. That undercurrent seemed so prevalent.”

Neither man, strangely enough, had grown up on the blues. Ulmer was born and raised in St. Matthews, S.C., where his parents were such strict Christians that his encounters with the town’s two bluesmen were rare and dangerous. Young Jimmy Ulmer, nicknamed “Blood” because he resembled his daddy so much, played guitar and sang harmony in his father’s gospel quartet, the Southern Sons. The older Ulmer had some Ellington 78s, but mostly the family listened to gospel records by the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Mighty Clouds of Joy and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. Only a few times did the young guitarist sneak around to check out Johnny Wilson, the old man who was the town’s best guitarist even if he sang “the devil’s music.”

Reid was born in London to West Indian parents and grew up in Brooklyn from the age of two. Raised on the rock and soul of the ’60s and ’70s, his only connection to authentic blues was through his neighborhood friends’ Southern-born parents, who still had T-Bone Walker and Muddy Waters records in their collections.

Both men wear their hair in dreadlocks. For the big and bulky Ulmer, 64, the locks are thin, short and many, spilling around his bristling beard and glasses. For the tall and lean Reid, a generation younger at 47, the locks are long, thick and fewer, drooping by his baby-handsome face and well past his shoulders.

One of the best tracks on Birthright is “Geechee Joe,” a song Ulmer wrote about the Pittsburgh grandfather the guitarist went to live with after graduating high school. Geechee is an alternate name for the Gullah culture of the Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands where African culture and dialect was less assimilated than in the rest of the American South. Joe had stepped out of the Gullah culture of Porgy and Bess and into the Pittsburgh culture of August Wilson and helped his country-boy nephew do the same.

“Geechee Joe was an outgoing person,” Ulmer remembers, “He wasn’t afraid to turn me on to things I wouldn’t get from my father. He bought me my first car at 18 years old, and he let me bring my girlfriend to his house when he went to the store. I stopped going to church and I stopped playing gospel. When I got to Pittsburgh, there was no outlet for gospel. But there was an outlet for doo-wop, young brothers singing in the street. They were singing different songs, but it had its roots in quartet singing. I said, ‘Uh oh, I remember this.'”

The guitar was usually the only accompaniment doo-wop groups used in those days, and Ulmer played guitar such acts as the Del-Vikings, the interracial Pittsburgh group that recorded the great doo-wop song, “Come Go With Me.” But Ulmer wanted to get better at the guitar. He was fascinated by George Benson, who was a year younger and played jazz, first in Pittsburgh clubs and then on the road with Brother Jack McDuff. If Benson could do it, Ulmer figured, so could he.

While he was on the road with R&B singer Jewel Bryner, Ulmer studied the records of Benson’s role model, Wes Montgomery. Ulmer moved to Columbus, Ohio, in 1965 and landed a job with the king of the local jazz scene, organist Hank Marr, in a group that included saxophonist George Adams. When Marr wasn’t working, Ulmer led his own band, the Blood Brothers. When the latter group played the Hubbub Club in Indianapolis one night, in walked Ulmer’s hero.

“Wes Montgomery was the undisputed guitar player at the time,” Ulmer recalls. “I liked him so much I decided to live and breathe like Wes Montgomery. When I played in his hometown, he came in and listened to me all night at the bar. I tried to get his attention in several different ways, but he wouldn’t say anything at all. I stood right next to him, and he wouldn’t acknowledge me. After that night, I decided I didn’t want to play like him anymore. So I had to learn a whole other technique.”

He found that newer, more challenging approach when he moved to Detroit in 1967. It was the year John Coltrane died, and artists such as Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp and Sam Rivers were pressing on with Trane’s experiments. In Detroit, the free-jazzers included figures such as Marcus Belgrave, Larry Smith and Charles Moore, and Ulmer was soon hanging out with them. The guitarist joined an experimental, cooperative band called Focus Novii and led a mainstream trio at the 20 Grand Club, where the house band was Funkadelic.

But the more Ulmer dove into the music of Coltrane, Art Blakey and pre-1969 Miles Davis, the more he kept asking himself the same question: Why don’t they use a guitar? He loved the new possibilities of this music, but why wouldn’t they let the guitar join the party?

“They played all that hard jazz, but they never had a guitar player,” Ulmer recalls. “I played with Art Blakey for a while, but Woody Shaw didn’t like having no guitar player. Why did they not want a guitar player? That’s the million-dollar question. Why did they think the guitar can’t play nothing but rock ‘n’ roll? That question has been driving me crazy all my life. I wondered about that and tried to figure out how to make them sorry they didn’t have one.”

Ulmer made it to New York for good in 1971. Seizing on the spirit of experimentation in the air, he opened a storefront near his new home in Brooklyn and set up some drums where the neighborhood kids could play. He played guitar with them, figuring that if he could play with the freewheeling youngsters, he could play with anyone. One day, though, Billy Higgins walked into the storefront, sat down behind a drum set and began to play with Ulmer. At the end of the session, Higgins said, “I want you to meet Ornette Coleman.”

“I had never heard of Ornette Coleman in my life,” Ulmer confesses. “I didn’t know he was going to be a good teacher. But as soon as Billy took me up there and I met him, I knew he was a genuine person; I knew he was for real. He listened to me play and told me, ‘You play natural harmolodic.’ I was glad to hear that. He made me think that what I was doing was important. That was the best inspiration I had right there. He made me feel that what I was doing was part of something important.”

This was 1972, and Ulmer moved into Coleman’s apartment and began to study with him every day. Coleman would call out unusual chord changes to see if the guitarist could keep up. This was so challenging that Ulmer was having trouble sleeping. One morning, in frustration, he tuned all six strings on his guitar to the same note. When Coleman called out a B-flat, Ulmer said, “I got no B-flat.” When Coleman called out an E-minor-seventh, Ulmer replied, “I ain’t got that either.” So they just started playing, and suddenly Ulmer sounded like no other guitarist in history; he was always going somewhere new because all the old patterns were gone. He was playing harmolodic guitar.

Ulmer joined a band that included Coleman, Higgins, Dewey Redman, Don Cherry and Charlie Haden. Within a year the band had been replaced by one that included Ulmer, Coleman, his son Denardo and bassist Sirone Jones. This was the quartet that defined the electric harmolodic sound that Ornette was seeking in the mid-’70s, the sound that would revitalize his career in the late ’70s. Sadly, there are no official recordings of this quartet, even though it toured North America and Europe and rehearsed incessantly.

“After a while he fired everybody and got the Prime Time Band,” Ulmer explains. “He replaced me with two guitar players. I was on my own after that. School was over. I had graduated. I was out on the street, whether I was ready or not. I wasn’t going to play anyone else’s music anymore; I was going to play my music, from church to harmolodics.”

The year was 1975; Ulmer was 33, and he began working on his first records under his own name. His debut, 1977’s Revealing, featured the guitarist’s old friend from Ohio, George Adams. Then Coleman repaid his protégé for all his years of unrecorded hard work by producing and playing on Ulmer’s second solo album, 1978’s Tales of Captain Black, a landmark harmolodic recording. Ulmer’s third solo album, 1980’s Are You Glad to Be in America?, featured not only half of the World Saxophone Quartet (David Murray and Oliver Lake) but also Coleman’s former drummer, Ronald Shannon Jackson, and Coleman’s new drummer, Calvin Weston.

In 1975 Vernon Reid was a 17-year-old high school student in Brooklyn who had picked up the guitar just two years earlier under the spell of his hero, Carlos Santana. He was first attracted to Santana’s singles, but when the guitarist began exploring jazz on the 1972 albums, Caravanserai and Love Devotion Surrender, Reid decided that maybe he should explore some jazz, too.

“My first exposure to jazz was hearing Coltrane’s ‘My Favorite Things,'” Reid says, “and getting that piece of music was a real defining moment in my life. I had never known that you could reshape a melody like that. I knew the Julie Andrews version from ‘The Sound of Music,’ and it wasn’t too many years later that I realized that Coltrane was dealing with the lyrics of that piece. It wasn’t just an excuse for him to blow; he was trying to say something.”

By 1980, 22-year-old Reid was well versed enough in both jazz and guitar technique to be invited to join a new band, Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society. Jackson is the often overlooked linchpin in harmolodic history. He was the only drummer on Coleman’s milestone 1970s albums Dancing in Your Head and Body Meta and was a major presence on Ulmer’s Are You Glad to Be in America?

Jackson emerged as a remarkable, melodic composer on a series of six albums in five years with his Decoding Society, including 1980’s Eye on You, 1981’s Nasty, 1981’s Street Priest and 1982’s Mandance. These were some of the most important harmolodic records ever released, and Reid played guitar on all of them.

“Ornette’s harmolodic music had a tremendous impact on me,” Reid says. “His harmolodic approach of moving away from the piano to the guitar was a major shift in jazz and created an opening for guitarists such as myself. Miles also moved away from keyboards for a while and made the guitar prominent. And in much the way that people who played with Miles and sounded like Miles when they went on to form their own bands, the people who played with Ornette-Shannon and Blood-sounded like Ornette.”

“One thing about Vernon,” Ulmer adds, “he always reminded me of someone determined to play the guitar. Playing with Shannon, he was starting with the hard-core music. When you see someone do that, you pray that they survive. And he did. The brother survived that shit. I tell him now, ‘Damn, Vernon, when I first saw you standing there with Shannon, I wondered what was going to happen to you. But you survived the hurricane.’ He doesn’t sound like anyone else I know; he sounds like Vernon. That’s the object of the whole thing.”

Meanwhile, the buzz generated by Ulmer’s first three solo albums caught the attention of Columbia Records, which signed him up for three more albums: 1981’s Free Lancing, 1982’s Black Rock and 1983’s Odyssey.

For the third album, though, Columbia was pressuring Ulmer to do something different. The company probably wasn’t thinking of a trio album with guitar, drums, violin and no bass, but that’s what Ulmer gave them. Charles Burnham’s fiddle provided a link to Ulmer’s rural Carolina roots and elicited a surprising lyricism from the harmolodic model. Warren Benbow’s drum-roll figures gave the music a forward propulsion, and Odyssey became a favorite title for many Ulmer fans. So much so that the trio reunited 22 years later for last year’s Back in Time CD, credited to Odyssey the Band.

“When we played, I felt I had finally gotten away from the western concept of the guitar,” Ulmer says. “The violin was playing most of the lead on top, and I was playing everything else, the reverse of playing with bass and drums. The violin had more of a chance to sound like Jimi Hendrix than I did. I felt I had finally arrived at this harmolodic guitar sound.”

Even as he played on landmark jazz albums by Jackson, Bill Frisell, Defunkt and John Zorn in the early ’80s, Reid was still pursuing the rock ‘n’ roll dreams that had drawn him to Santana in the first place. Angered by a music industry that acted as if a black musician could play R&B or jazz but not rock ‘n’ roll, he cofounded the Black Rock Coalition with journalist Greg Tate and producer Konda Mason in 1985. The group provided showcases and advocacy for African-American rock ‘n’ roll musicians.

Living Colour was the best evidence for the coalition’s argument. Joined by drummer Will Calhoun, bassist Muzz Skillings and vocalist Corey Glover, Reid fashioned a quartet with the industrial roar of such hard-rock acts as Led Zeppelin, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Van Halen. Mick Jagger heard Living Colour at CBGB’s in New York and not only asked them to play on his solo album Primitive Cool, but also helped them get signed to Epic Records. The band’s 1988 debut, Vivid, went platinum and yielded a top-15 single, “Cult of Personality,” which won a Grammy for best hard rock performance. The follow-up album, 1990’s Time’s Up, earned the same Grammy.

It was a wild ride while it lasted. Living Colour opened a Rolling Stones tour, and Reid got to play with such heroes as Carlos Santana and Bernie Worrell. Eventually, though, sales tapered off; band dissension grew and Living Colour broke up in 1995. The group did reunite for a 2003 album, and Reid says talks about possible future projects are ongoing.

Once the Living Colour ride was over, Reid had a chance to reexamine his own music. He released his first solo album, the fusion-flavored Mistaken Identity in 1996, produced an album by Mali’s Salif Keita, collaborated with hip-hop’s DJ Logic and reunited for three albums with Ronald Shannon Jackson. Reid kept asking himself, “What’s the glue that holds all these projects together?” The answer, inevitably, was the blues. It was revealing that Mistaken Identity contained samples from John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Thinking about how to connect these bluesmen to jazz guitar got Reid thinking about his old inspiration, Ulmer.

“I started thinking about Blood as a vocalist rather than as a guitar player,” Reid explains. “If you listen to him singing on ‘Black Rock’ or ‘Are You Glad to Be in America?’ it’s straight blues, a cross between John Lee Hooker and Richie Havens with a low-pitched vibrato thrown in. I went, ‘Oh, man, it’s so obvious once you think about it.’ When I mentioned it to him, it was in passing, like ‘Hey, man, how you doing? You know, you should do a blues record.’ Every time I saw him, I would launch into my ‘Hey, you should do some of those old blues tunes’ rap.”

“Every time I’d see Vernon, he’d say, ‘I want to produce a blues record for you,'” Ulmer recalls. “I said, ‘A blues record? I’m not thinking about a blues record.’ I never took it that serious, because I never thought of singing the blues. But he wouldn’t give up, and some kind of way they hooked it up with the record company. I said, ‘I’ll trust you to produce the record. I’ve been knowing you a long time.’ He did everything: He picked the songs and musicians, rehearsed the band, he produced the whole thing and I just sang the songs. I didn’t have to play the guitar; all I had to do was sing.”

In the early ’90s, when the Living Colour tour stopped in Memphis, Reid took an afternoon to check out the original Sun Studios, where everyone from B.B. King to Elvis Presley had made their earliest recordings. Reid saw a photo of Howlin’ Wolf in the studio and then realized that the wall in the photo was the same unchanged wall that the photo was pinned to. And when the guide said that the studio was open for recording at night after the daytime tours were done, Reid knew he’d have to come back someday.

He returned in April 2001 to produce Ulmer’s Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions for release that fall. Reid had picked the band and the songs (dominated by numbers associated with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf). They sat in the same boxy room with the same white acoustic tiles as so many others; the door was open and the rain was falling on Union Avenue. But once work began in earnest, Reid realized that Ulmer’s conflicted feelings about the blues had lasted long past his childhood.

“At a certain point, we were listening to a playback of the keeper take of ‘I Want to Be Loved,'” Reid recalls. “Blood leaned back and said, ‘Yeah, that’s the blues that mama didn’t want me to do.’ That’s when it came home to me that he had to confront a lot of internal issues, a lot of old family dialogue.

“He didn’t want to do ‘Death Letter.’ I said, ‘This is about a man getting the bone-crushing news that his lover that he had a difficult time with has died and he realizes how much he loved her.’ Blood stopped me and said, ‘I’ve had two of those.’ He was able to relate it to his own life and go forward to a brilliant version.”

“It was strange,” Ulmer admits. “As much as I’d been influenced by the blues, I didn’t know much about them, because my parents had kept me away. So I had to first learn about this music. I learned more about blues from the Martin Scorsese documentary than I had in my whole life. When I listened to all that dialogue and all that music, it made sense to preserve the blues as close as I can in its original form. It’s important to preserve music, especially black music in this country, like Wynton [Marsalis] is keeping that old style of jazz music going, because it’s a window to the past.”

Reid has also had to deal with unresolved childhood issues. Even though his parents grew up on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, their son was a rock ‘n’ roll kid from Brooklyn. He never visited the island as a child, and though he played some reggae and calypso in his high school cover bands, he gravitated to jazz and then became a rock star. It’s no coincidence that his solo album titles-Mistaken Identity, Known Unknown and this year’s Other True Self-all reflect the question of self-definition.

“My solo albums are an interrogation of identity,” he says. “The thing with these different titles is thinking about my different selves-the rock guy, the jazz guy, the black guy, the island guy-and how those dynamics, often unspoken, play themselves out. We’re more comfortable talking about music if we don’t dip into the unspeakable. These records are an inquiry into the identities I’ve taken on and the identities that have been thrust upon me.

“There’s something for me to do with Caribbean music, but I haven’t quite figured out what that is yet.”

Reid’s new album takes baby steps in that direction with “Flatbush and Church Revisited,” about the Caribbean neighborhood in Brooklyn where he grew up, and “Prof. Bebey,” a tribute to the Cameroonian anthropologist and guitarist. But the album also includes “Wildlife” by fusion legend Tony Williams, two songs by British rock bands and several songs that sound like sci-fi movie soundtracks.

His first record with Ulmer was so successful that Reid arranged for a follow-up session, this time in New York. The idea was to make a record as northern and urban as the first one had been southern and rural. The songs included Jimmy Reed’s “Going to New York” and “Bright Lights, Big City,” Johnny Copeland’s “Ghetto Child,” Muddy Waters’ “The Blues Had a Baby and Called It Rock N Roll” and Ulmer’s own “Are You Glad to Be in America?” It was released in 2003 as No Escape From the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions. Two years later Reid produced Birthright, an album that showcased Ulmer unaccompanied for the first time.

“Take My Music Back to the Church,” the opening track on Birthright, begins with a 30-second guitar intro, stabbing runs at a progression from different angles, phrases that could be described as harmolodic as easily as old-school blues.

“My greatest ambition is to be a blues preacher,” he says. “When I sing ‘Let’s Talk About Jesus,’ I mean, ‘Let’s talk about what he done done, not what they said he done.’ I’ve written these songs about New Orleans, and it’s necessary that these songs be heard. It’s important that no one forget what happened in New Orleans so no one thinks they can get away with this shit again. Picasso painted a picture not because he wanted to make a picture but because he wanted to make a big statement. Music should be like that.” Originally Published

Geoffrey Himes

Geoffrey Himes has written about jazz and other genres of music on a regular basis for the Washington Post since 1977 and has also written for JazzTimes, Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Public Radio, and others. His book on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A., was published by Continuum Books in 2005 and he’s currently working on a major book for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2015), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards.