Birthright continues the blues exploration free jazz guitarist James Blood Ulmer began with 2001’s Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions and continued on 2003’s No Escape from the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions. But where those previous albums saw the blues translated into the avant-garde vocabulary via larger group ensembles, Birthright features Ulmer alone with just his guitar, playing and singing in a way that Robert Johnson would appreciate.
The blues has always been a vital force in Ulmer’s music, but this time he’s stripped the music down to an unprecedented extent. At times in the past, it’s been hard to discern the blues feeling underneath his typical harmolodic free-jazz wig-outs. Here, Ulmer has made damn sure no one’s going to miss the point.
Built simply around Ulmer’s acoustic guitar and voice, Birthright features twelve songs that sound as if they could be 100 years old but also reflect a modern sensibility which grounds them in the here and now. Only someone like Ulmer, who’s been the beneficiary and victim of a specific cultural upbringing, could have created the music on Birthright . Sure, Ulmer includes the blues standards Sittin’ on top of the World and I Ain’t Superstitious, but they’re immersed in the irregular rhythms of his guitar playing (best exemplified on the non-vocal track High Yellow and an updated and fiercely outspoken lyrical consciousness.
Too many modern blues collections get stuck trying to emulate the aural trademarks of the genre or self-consciously try to “update” the music. Ulmer has managed to avoid the pitfalls of both approaches. While the guitar playing and singing resemble something you might’ve heard on a scratchy old recording (especially the first track, Take My Music Back to the Church, they offer an explicit freedom of expression that simply was not available to folks like Son House or Howlin’ Wolf.
Neither of those two men could have sung the mournful White Man’s Jail, a song about the pride and difficulty of avoiding white confinement. The same goes for the playful Geechee Joe, where Ulmer sings proudly about his uncle, who earned the respect of the community by his steadfast refusal to “work for the white man”. For the bluesmen of yesterday to sing as plainly and openly as Ulmer does would have been an invitation to violence. To hear Ulmer sing so nakedly about sex, race, and religion while playing such dusty music makes for a striking juxtaposition, and is a strong case for the continued relevance of blues music.
While Ulmer has made an admirable and perhaps necessary effort to shake some cobwebs off the blues, Birthright is at times almost overcome by an air of solemnity. Part of the appeal of the blues has always been its use as good time music: Robert Johnson was an entertainer as much as anything else. But aside from one or two instances, Ulmer sticks to a mood of portentous dread. That mood is gripping in small doses, but hard to sustain for an entire album.
As the title suggests, this is the music that Ulmer was born to play. As a black man who finds himself at a unique point in both his own and his people’s history, he has opened up new possibilities for blues music. Ulmer proves that blues which respects the past doesn’t have to be spiffed and shined to have contemporary resonance, nor does it have to mimic the outward appearances of the times since passed. But it’s a sad thing if such music is always going to be as grim as what Ulmer has given us on Birthright.
The album ends with “Devil’s Got to Burn”, where Ulmer reaches deep and pulls out a heavy song about the inevitability of evil. The anxiety is ratcheted up at various points in the song when, always at the perfect moment, Ulmer unleashes a spine-tingling laugh that’s sure to scare the kids on Halloween. But after about five minutes, the blues stops and for the first time in an hour there is the sound of something other than Ulmer’s voice or guitar. This album of pain and mud ends with a delicate flute solo. It’s a desperately needed life preserver on an album that spends most of its time on a raging sea of despair.