Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Bad Blood in the City

Bad Blood in the City: The Piety Street Sessions
James Blood Ulmer
Hyena Records

Last year, James Blood Ulmer performed “Survivors of the Hurricane,” a stark original solo blues, at the Jazz Foundation of America’s annual Apollo concert. It was one of three songs JBU composed during the immediate aftermath of Katrina. Ulmer would record them, along with thematically related originals and blues classics by the likes of John Lee Hooker and Willie Dixon, at New Orleans’ Piety Street Studios, with the results now available on Bad Blood in the City.

Ulmer’s influences are a rare mixture of the avant-garde harmolodics of Ornette Coleman and the primeval Delta Blues. His aggressive guitar and rugged vocals make his solo blues downright spooky. However, the recorded version of “Survivors” sounds over-produced compared to the raw power of JBU’s solo rendition. The slower, sparer arrangement of “Katrina” is much more successful at capturing Ulmer’s visceral power. Here the band is in much better balance, with David Barnes harmonica and Leon Gruenbaum’s keyboards amplifying the passion of Ulmer’s blues.

The third immediate Katrina original “Let’s Talk About Jesus” brings in a funky gospel vibe with some wailing Hammond B3 and the soulful backing vocals of Irene Datcher. A final original, “Old Slave Master,” also inspired by events in New Orleans, may be the most lyrically biting. It is also the closest to traditional rollicking New Orleans R&B, with funky piano, violin, and harmonica complimenting Ulmer nicely.

There is plenty of the blues tradition on Piety Street. Ulmer and his band express the age old blues of Mother Nature in “Backwater Blues,” a particularly effective feature for Charlie Burnham’s electric fiddle. Of the elders represented here, Willie Dixon’s “Dead Presidents” is the most natural fit for Ulmer’s vocal style.

While uneven, at its best, Bad Blood bristles with power. It is a product of New Orleans, both in a literal and metaphoric sense, and it ardently testifies on behalf of the city.