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Funk and free jazz make his blues sing

James Blood Ulmer waited until two years ago, when he was pushing 60, to start playing traditional blues, but he led off his first set at Johnny D's on Thursday night with a handful of quasi-acoustic solo numbers that made it sound as if he'd been a bluesman all his life.


Then he brought out his electric guitar and a pair of standout local stand-ins for a half-dozen more songs, which mostly coupled large doses of funk with the free-jazz harmolodics Ulmer became known for in the '70s and '80s, via such albums as "Odyssey" and "Tales of Captain Black."

In a brown suit, tie, and snakeskin boots, Ulmer opened with his own "Satisfy (Story Of My Life)" and the R. M. Jones classic "Trouble in Mind," both from his excellent new CD, "No Escape From the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions." On the latter, Ulmer demonstrated a notion he's been getting quoted on: that all blues guitarists, himself included, imitate whatever is being sung about -- a rooster, a hound dog, what have you -- on their instruments.

Sure enough, as he sang the line "My poor heart is beating slow," Ulmer's guitar accompaniment throbbed momentarily.

The last solo number of the first set to get played all the way through was the Chester Burnett tune "I Asked for Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)," which Howlin' Wolf made a hit in 1956 and which Ulmer put on his first full-fledged blues album, the Grammy-nominated "Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions." He then started into his own signature piece, "Are You Glad to Be in America?" But he cut himself off after a few bars to introduce the night's drummer, Kenwood Dennard, an old friend of Ulmer's from New York who now teaches at Berklee. Dennard, who has recorded with Miles Davis and Sting, came onstage in a colorful ankle-length cloak, and the two burned through Ulmer's "Online Junkie," Ulmer continuing his bluesy vocals.

Electric bassist Lenny Stallworth came out next, in blue jeans, gray sweatshirt, and do-rag. Ulmer fumbled his name a bit in making an introduction, which made all the more impressive the tight way these temporary bandmates, in their mismatched outfits, locked in together when they began playing.

The set peaked with a full-length "Are You Glad to Be in America?" and with Ulmer's similarly rapid-paced "Blues Alnight." And then came a change of pace -- Willie Dixon's "Little Red Rooster." A fast number wrapped things up, and Ulmer asked the crowd to "Give it up for Leonard on the bass!"

James Blood Ulmer

At: Johnny D's, first set, Thursday night

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