Subversive guitar god James Blood Ulmer plays a rare Chicago show | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

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Subversive guitar god James Blood Ulmer plays a rare Chicago show

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Guitar gods don’t come much more sagelike, subversive, and utterly distinctive than James Blood Ulmer. Born Willie James Ulmer in North Carolina, this towering figure of free blues guitar, now 79 years old, started off in 1960s soul-jazz combos in Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio, before settling in New York in 1971. In the Big Apple he hooked up with progressive jazzers such as Art Blakey, Rashied Ali, and Larry Young, but his best-known association is with one of the godfathers of avant-garde jazz, Ornette Coleman. Ulmer was the first electric guitarist to record and tour with Coleman’s ensemble, and he adopted the bandleader’s singular approach, dubbed “harmolodics.” That discipline is notoriously difficult to understand, let alone explain, but Joe Yanosik did a pretty good job in online magazine Doobeedoobeedoo NY when he described it as “not bound by a specific tonal center in which harmony, tempo and melody all have equal importance. Each player in the ensemble can play what they feel as long as they listen carefully to what the other musicians are playing.” Ulmer never delves into pure improvisation in his fearless fretwork; whether he’s performing his own songs (such as insurrectionist anthem “Are You Glad to Be in America?”) or covers (such as Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile”), he twists each song inside out to expose its seemingly elastic musical guts and skeleton. Ulmer is essentially the last guitarist to have expanded the vocabulary of the guitar, and it’s apparent in his wah-wah licks, his sizzling distortion, and the occasional utter free-ness in his playing. Influenced by Hendrix and Coleman as well as by the wild ’n’ woolly free jazz of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, Ulmer’s crucial solo LPs, including Tales of Captain Black (1978) and Black Rock (1982), affirm his love and respect for the blues while adding his own freaky take on the genre. To indulge his funkier, more out-jazz side, Ulmer launched the Music Revelation Ensemble in the 1980s, whose various lineups included such titans as Pharoah Sanders, David Murray, and Sam Rivers. Solo Ulmer performances are as rare as hen’s teeth, and recent set lists show that along with exploring free jazz, he’s been covering blues standards such as “Rock Me Baby” and Jimmy Reed’s “Going to New York.” But whatever he plays, you can always expect the unexpected from this idiosyncratic living legend.   v

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