James “Blood” Ulmer – Solos: The Jazz Sessions (2010)
Studio: MVD Visual MVD5012D
Video: 16×9 Color
Audio: DD 5.1 Surround
Length: 49:46 (bonus 3:24)
There are many videos to recommend from the DVD series Solos: The Jazz Sessions, which initially aired on Canadian television. This particular title features iconoclastic guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, who has fluently traveled from free jazz to blues to rock to funk and has, since starting his career in the late 1950s – like his hero Jimi Hendrix – revealed innovative things that can be done with six strings.
While many Ulmer performances can be marked by hard-edged, amplified sharpness, the seven tracks on this intimate presentation showcase Ulmer’s quieter side, underlining his melodies, nuance and subtlety. This stripped down convention is rare but not unprecedented: Ulmer utilized a similar perspective on Birthright (2005), his singular examination of American blues.
Ulmer opens with a version of his noted social awareness discourse, “Are You Glad to Be in America?,” which matches the style and character of the semi-acoustic Delta blues translation he did on his album No Escape from the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions (2003). This is a rewarding way to begin because it’s an audience favorite and the rendition sets the tone for the rest of the nearly 50-minute program. The biting lyrics remain as relevant as when this piece was released over three decades ago. The only criticism is the short length: when Ulmer plays this with a band the cut carries more muscular weight missing from a single strummed guitar. From the same blues-drenched Electric Lady outing, Ulmer also reinterprets his autobiographical effort, “Satisfy (Story of My Life),” which displays Ulmer’s talent for using Southern blues motifs as a touchstone for his own material.
Spontaneity has been Ulmer’s means to an end since he was mentored by Ornette Coleman and became an exponent of Coleman’s Harmelodic theory, a system that regards the elements of harmony, rhythm and melody in equivalent measures. Ulmer’s musical freedom bears fruit during a softly textured take of “Black Sheep,” earlier heard on his 1986 release, America: Do You Remember the Love? It’s a little-known but beautifully effective creation with a shifting evolution that demonstrates Ulmer’s low-key methodology. Another understated surprise is Ulmer’s flute exercise, the previously unavailable “Secret,” which imparts a distinctive tonal quality. While Ulmer’s flute will never offer the kind of authority his guitar furnishes, the flute interlude conveys an intriguing side to Ulmer’s musical personality.
Ulmer’s unassuming conversant beliefs are disclosed during brief interview segments placed between performances, which give the film a firm framing. The anecdotes and statements provide useful background information, such as why Ulmer now uses the flute as a creative tool.
The video and audio are superb, which is a hallmark of this DVD series. Detailed close-ups afford fans the opportunity to check out Ulmer’s fretboard fingering; the lighting is choreographed in restrained but expert ways; and the production as a whole supplies the video an authoritative sheen. The 5.1 Surround sound emphasizes Ulmer’s reserved junctures so viewers can enjoy even the most subdued moments.
Bonus features are slim: a 3:24 promotional clip for a different Solos: The Jazz Sessions DVD program for guitarist John Abercrombie.
— Doug Simpson