Forbidden Blues

James Blood Ulmer

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Forbidden Blues Review

by Thom Jurek

Since the late 1970s, James Blood Ulmer has defined himself as a musical chameleon with a singular sound. His many ensembles range from blues/funk trios to chamber jazz quartets to free jazz sextets to harmolodic funk and soul groups. The band he assembled for Forbidden Blues in 1996 was his standard blues with Amin Ali on electric bass and Calvin Weston on drums, and augmented on certain cuts with longtime collaborator Charles Burnham on violin, Calvin Jones playing acoustic bass, Michael Musutafa on keyboards, and vocalist Dana Manno on one cut. Blood, of course, played guitar, sang in a few spots, and even played flute on one track. Like the 2001 issue, Blue Blood, this is a mixed bag musically: there are free harmolodic workouts in spaces, but these are few. What Ulmer seems to be using this band for is to play jazz songs. They are somewhat mood driven, late night, post 3 a.m. numbers, following a series of interweaving melodies that call on each other for the next step harmonically. "Eviction" is such a track, where the late night vibe permeates, an acoustic bass controls the groove and Ulmer plays his layered melodies, much like a singer would, changing keys and octaves while retaining the harmonic sensibility of the tune. It's beautiful and swings with a restraint we get from the artist increasingly these days, but was new then.

On "Do You Wanna," Ulmer returns to the territory he explored on Black Rock in the 1980s. Powerful harmolodic chords create a riff for his voice and Ali's bass wedges a deep, almost P-Funk bassline into the center of the track, which becomes its backbone and the musical stage Ulmer sings from. They lyrics are no big deal -- they haven't been since Are You Glad to Be in America -- but they add to the overall groove 'n' roll of the cut. When Ulmer reunites with violinist Burnham, such as on "Forget Not," "Hymn," and "Inspiration," the music becomes truly wondrous. The interplay is so effortless, so intricate and fluid, it's as if each man had played the other's instrument before. Solos take place within riffs that change colors, timbres, and shape each time they're played. On "Hymn," the artist ups the ante by playing flute in addition to the guitar. These tracks are the album's standouts to be sure, but there isn't anything substandard here unlike a few of his preceding efforts. For those who are looking for Blood Ulmer to play the role of harmolodic guitar master, there is always the Music Revelation Ensemble. For those seeking to listen to the continuing development of James Ulmer as a musician, there are projects like this one, that pick up where his Odyssey recordings leave off, and where the Blues Preacher and Blues All Night recordings, flawed as they are, tried to direct our attention. This is jazz that embraces the spectrum of black music and holds within it the possibility for magic at each and every turn.

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