James Blood Ulmer's Birthright - Blues Album of the Year

Earlier this year, the legendary American music iconoclast, James Blood Ulmer, released his first ever solo recording, Birthright. The album, which features Ulmer alone on vocals and guitar, quickly drew critical acclaim, garnering praise from the likes of national publications such as DownBeat, Guitar Player, Jazz Times, Jazziz, Living Blues, No Depression and Rolling Stone, while newspapers including the Chicago Sun Times, Minneapolis City Pages, Seattle Post Intelligencer and The Washington Post declared it one of this year's most important blues records. Now, James Blood Ulmer's Birthright has been voted “Blues Album of the Year” in DownBeat Magazine's 70th Annual Readers Poll.

The poll, based solely on votes by DownBeat's readers, validates the critical praise Birthright has received by reflecting the opinion of the fans. It's a well-deserved honor for an artist whose music has undergone a creative renaissance and commercial rediscovery in recent years. Long regarded as one of the most inventive guitarists of his generation, Ulmer's reputation has slowly morphed from avant-garde jazz visionary to an elder statesman of the blues. In fact, Ulmer covers all this ground and more.

Produced by Vernon Reid, the 12-track Birthright is far and away the most stark and deeply personal work of Ulmer's career. Based primarily on original material, songs like “Geechee Joe, ” “Take My Music Back To The Church, ” “Where Did All the Girls Come From” “The Evil One” and “White Man's Jail” deal directly with Ulmer's upbringing in segregated South Carolina and his migration North as a working musician. Ulmer continually confronts the church, trying to make amends with his past. Raised a strict Baptist, his career in secular music was long viewed by his parents as the devil's work. It's fascinating to watch Ulmer's public struggle unfold through these songs. On Birthright, Ulmer also tackles two classics of the blues' idiom, “Sittin' On Top of the World” and “I Ain't Superstitious, ” and completely reinvents them with his idiosyncratic guitar tuning and guttural vocal moan that harkens back to the blues most primitive origins in Africa, yet simultaneously sounding amongst the most modern blues of the day. The album is rounded out by two instrumental pieces, “Love Dance Rag” and “High Yellow, ” which are gloriously free and abstract guitar meditations.

Birthright was released on the heels of two full-blown James Blood Ulmer blues albums: Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions & No Escape From the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions. Ulmer was joined on these dates by a seven piece band, including producer and guitarist Vernon Reid. They found Ulmer interpreting some of the genre's most classic material. It was Reid's assertion that Ulmer wasn't merely playing the blues, but that he'd actually lived the life of the characters in those very songs. Despite the success of those two albums, when it came time for a follow up, Ulmer insisted that the music be stripped bare and that he deliver his own personal revelations and stories through original songs. Thus Birthright was born.

2005 was one of the busiest years in recent time for Ulmer. It saw him perform numerous dates around the world, including a string of blues festivals this past summer. He'll finish the year with a solo performance at The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan on November 30th, while laying low for the majority of December to work on new material. Plans are already underway for the follow up to Birthright, however, tour dates are stacking up for 2006, including extended tours of Europe and a seven night stand at New York City's Jazz Standard in March. This special hometown run will feature a different side of Ulmer's music each night, ranging from his solo blues to the Odyssey Blues Band (with Charlie Burnham & Warren Benbow) to his power trio Man Vs. Machine (with Calvin G. Weston & Jamaladeen Tacuma) to the Memphis Blood band. With the recent DownBeat “Blues Album of the Year” honors, Ulmer is sure to find a growing audience for Birthright's powerful and riveting songs. And word is sure to spread further and wider about James Blood Ulmer, an artist who nearly 50 years into his career is creating his most vital and important music yet.

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