David Murray opened the first set of a two night run March 7 with his Blues Big Band playing a song of his own called “Stressology.” Before bringing out featured performer James “Blood” Ulmer, he said, he wanted to relieve some stress for the audience “because New York is so imposing.” It might have been seen as a quiet homecoming of sorts for the saxophonist who has been talking about moving back to New York after a decade and a half in Paris. He didn't say as much from the stage but here he was, back in New York and in front of a big band, even if it was a Tuesday at Iridium instead of one of the many, many Mondays he hosted at the Knitting Factory.
There were a couple names back from those olden days - Alex Harding on baritone sax and Jaribu Shahid on upright bass and bass guitar - but it was still a new project and if the band wasn't up to the full power that Murray's big band had harnessed when they were playing weekly gigs, they still backed Ulmer more than ably once he joined them on stage. All told, it was probably a better Ulmer gig than it was a Murray one even if the leader's few tenor solos still stole the show. The one notable exception to that broad stroke came in the form of another Murray in the 15-piece band who wasn't introduced until midpoint.
Ulmer started with a strong take on Bessie Smith's “Backwater Blues” and a funky version of his own “Talk About Jesus,” both of which appeared on his 2007 release Bad Blood in the City: The Piety Street Sessions. His phlanged guitar was untroubled by treble as he moaned the New Orleans-inspired songs through a choppy vibrato while a bold young man comped next to him on a custom Stratocaster. The rhythm figures played by the younger guitarist paid a debt owed to Ulmer, but when he stood up to solo he showed an allegiance to Hendrix, Santana and Eddie Hazel as well. And when David Murray introduced him as Mingus Murray - without going so far as to say he was his son, although he is - the lineage was made clear. The younger Murray has been setting the stage for his own rhythm and funky blues, describing himself as an “art nouveau rock star from the future” and releasing his first album as a free download via his website.
The various forces aligned for a cover of Kanye West's “Love Lockdown,” a song the elder Murray has also played with his Cuban Ensemble joined by singer Macy Gray and Roots drummer ?estlove and firmly grounded here by Shahid's electric bass. The set concluded with a reading of “Sitting on Top of the Worldwhich was the jazziest thing of the night.
Even with some nods to the new, there was a current of nostalgia going on, enough so that one could be forgiven for imagining that Murray and Ulmer might next revisit Recording N.Y.C. 1986, even without the late, great Fred Hopkins. It's unlikely, but it remains one of the best releases in either man's catalog.
Here's a short documentary about the project, not from the same gig but worth a watch:
- Kurt Gottschalk