hy, oh why, can’t I make this land my home, with all the bridges gone?” asked James Blood Ulmer decades ago on his landmark Are You Glad to Be in America?
album. For many, both questions remain impossible to answer. A Southern Baptist preacher’s son, Ulmer moved up to New York City in the early ‘70s, and was soon playing with serious jazz heavyweights like Joe Henderson, Rashied Ali, and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. But it was while recording and touring with his hero Ornette Coleman that the electric guitarist truly came into his own. Much like his mentor, Ulmer has always taken an experimental approach to his instrument — he typically tunes all of his strings to just one or two notes — resulting in an instantly recognizable style that manages to be both angular and melodic. Combined with deeply soulful vocals that often sound like a Southern-accented Jimi Hendrix, it’s small wonder that Ulmer’s “avant-gutbucket” approach, as jazz writer Bill Milkowski so perfectly termed it, made him a free-funk hero among jazz-punk luminaries like John Zorn and Bill Laswell. In the years since, he’s continued to make music that seems to draw upon some divine source of energy and inspiration, which it most likely does. “I’m not a creator; I don’t create music,” he once said in a video interview. “I’m a discoverer, and a lot of things I’ve discovered, no one else is doing. But it’s not that I created it. It’s there all the time.”