James Blood Ulmer has been on a something of a roll since the late '90s, after reuniting with longtime cohort Charlie Burnham and delving into the blues. The two Vernon Reid-produced blues albums were among the best of his career, with Ulmer adding his harmolodic shadings to classics from the blues canon. The 52nd Street Blues Project is a stripped-down offshoot of those albums, but they operate as a band instead of simply supporting Ulmer. Along with Ulmer and Burnham are Blood's rhythm section -- Aubrey Dayle (drums) and Mark Peterson (bass) -- and vocalist Queen Esther, all veterans of Blood's blues albums. But here everyone but Dayle contributes to the songwriting instead of working covers, simultaneously updating the tradition and reaching back to prewar blues archetypes. "My Favorite Thing" is just Ulmer solo -- voice and guitar (as is "Where Do All the Girls Come From?") -- and evokes the primal blues of early John Lee Hooker sides. Queen Esther is up next, accompanied only by Mark Peterson on "You Lied," an infectious, swinging number whose themes are the essence of the blues but addressed with the fresh perspective of a blues poet rather than the same tired blues clichés. Queen Esther's got a strong, soulful voice and impeccable phrasing, which is supported perfectly by Peterson's swinging bassline. Then it's time for "Recess," a droning blues march with fantastic violin from Charlie Burnham that stands alongside great Ulmer instrumentals like "Love Dance" from Odyssey. Burnham is amazing here, an expressive modal workout with slippery harmonics and a snaky down-home feel. Ulmer takes vocals with the full band for "My Prayer," then hands them back to Queen Esther for "Queen Esther's Blues." Burnham gets the spotlight again for "Watermark," another slinky instrumental with just violin and bass, then takes a rare vocal turn on "Papa Don't Know," where he switches to mandolin and sings with a sweet voice. And check out his other solos, like on "I'm Goin'" or the funny quote in "Sunnyland" -- the man just shines. Even Peterson gets a solo shot on "A Miniature of the Bass." But as great as it is, Ulmer fans have heard much of this music before; the real revelation on this album is Queen Esther, whose uplifting songs and great singing are definite highlights on a consistently strong album. Just see if you can get "Sunnyland" or "I'm Goin'" out of your head at the end of the disc. Blues & Grass is a great album from a great band that knows all shades of the blues. The key is in the liner notes, where Blood says, "I like the idea of the blues as a sound more than I like the idea of the blues as a form." Some songs might not sound like conventional blues, but that's part of the beauty of this album. Remember, this is not a James Blood Ulmer record, it's a band effort by the 52nd Street Blues Project, but it ranks right up there with any of Ulmer's albums or projects despite his diminished role. Let's hope that this one-off live recording turns into something more; this is a keeper.
AllMusic Review by Sean Westergaard