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Writing about “Broken Snow,” the Ben Andron thriller now getting its world premiere at the J’s Cultural Arts Theatre (JCAT) in North Miami Beach, is a proposition almost as tricky as the play itself. The intricately structured 90-minute drama is loaded with surprises, twists and turns, all revealed at precisely the right moment so that the play builds to its shattering conclusion..

As this steamy spring melts into a sweltering summer, Actors’ Playhouse is inviting theater lovers to a wedding – a big, fat Jewish-WASP wedding, otherwise known as the Broadway musical “It Shoulda Been You.” Though the show seemingly takes place in the present, the piece by book writer-lyricist Brian Hargrove and composer Barbara Anselmi is an old-fashioned, stereotype-filled throwba..

'Death & Harry Houdini' Makes Another Magical Moment at ArshtDennis Watkins knows how to make an entrance. In the House Theatre of Chicago’s “Death & Harry Houdini,” now back at the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater five years after it first wowed Miami audiences, Watkins arrives onstage with the help of theater technology unknown in Houdini’s day. Dangling upside dow..

Director Carlos Lechuga’s masterful unspooling of time in his second feature film “Santa y Ándres” constructs a uniquely Cuban mix of tedium and despair, resulting in an emotionally intense experience that sneaks up on the viewer in plain sight. The film opens with the stillness of a landscape painting: the eastern Cuban countryside of 1983 – rugged, lush, and verdant. The statuesque..

Memory – deep-seated, fragile, slippery, mutable – is at the heart of Jordan Harrison’s “Marjorie Prime.” A Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2015, the play is a family tragicomedy given a sci-fi makeover; in other words, this thought-provoking theater piece charts its own, fresh path. Now getting its South Florida premiere as the second professional production from the Main Street Players, ..

The stage is a fixed space. It is the axis around which story, conflict, and character revolve. When that fixed space shifts, new possibilities emerge. Starting Wednesday, April 23, a shifting site for theater emerges at Deering Estate, a 444-acre environmental, archeological, and historical preserve along the edge of Biscayne Bay in Palmetto Bay. Four local playwrights have collaborated ..

Nearly two years ago, Miami’s Zoetic Stage took its first trip into the world of Harold Pinter with an intense, superbly acted production of the Nobel laureate’s 1978 hit “Betrayal” in the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater. Now Zoetic is delving further back into the Pinter canon with a riveting production of “The Caretaker.” This 1960 work is, like “Betrayal,” a three-character ..

Imagine animation created live on stage, with mini backdrops, puppets, and low-tech props. Channel it through multiple cameras and mix it live into a projected film. Add a string quartet and a DJ. This is the structure of “Nufonia Must Fall,” an upcoming project presented by MDC Live Arts. The show is slated for appearances around the world, from Asia and the Middle East to Europe and..

That Actors’ Playhouse opened its production of Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way” on the same day that the American Health Care Act was pulled from a vote by the House of Representatives is ironic and more than a little instructive. The much-touted replacement for Obamacare didn’t have enough sure votes to ensure passage, as Speaker Paul Ryan told President Donald Trump, so the “replac..

The take-no-prisoners world of high finance and ruthless business deals has long been a tantalizing subject for artists. From filmmaker Oliver Stone’s 1987 “Wall Street,” with its antihero Gordon Gekko spouting “greed is good,” to Damien Lewis’ slick hedge fund mogul Bobby Axelrod in the Showtime series “Billions,” movies and television allow those of us in the 99 percent a glimpse at wha..

May’s “Mujeres” series of strong, multi-faceted, women-focused productions, commissioned for Miami Theater Center’s SandBox space, concludes with Spanish-born dancer-choreographer Carlota Pr..

One could say that Bistoury’s 305 & Havana International Improv Fest, which debuts this Saturday at Miami Theater Center, has been in the works for almost 20 years. In 1999 Cuban-born cho..

The process of creating “Shade,” choreographer Augusto Soledade’s latest full-length work, has been one of remembering and reconfiguring memory to discover new ways of talking about identity ..

Upcoming this week, Tigertail presents choreographer Myriam Gourfink and musician Kasper Toeplitz. Hailing from France, the two will be present for a 3-day residency at Subtropics’ South Beac..

From her home base at 6th Street Dance Studio in Little Havana, longtime Miami dance figure Brigid Baker has been slowly crafting a new performance piece. It’s not conceptual or political like con..

Karen Peterson is the artistic director of Karen Peterson and Dancers, a company that brings professional dancers with and without disabilities together in the same piece of choreography, and..

Revivals are hot on Broadway these days with “CATS”and “Hello, Dolly!“once again gracing the Great White Way. There is a certain nostalgia in taking a second or even third viewing of a belove..

What happens when urban dance style meets classical music? We’ll find out when Brooklyn-based hip-hop dance troupe Decadancetheater takes the stage, backed by Miami’s own experimental classic..

“What does it mean to belong? What does it mean to not want to belong?” These are questions that choreographer Reggie Wilson contemplates in his provocative piece “CITIZEN,“ which makes its M..

In the Blood: James Blood Ulmer’s Jazz and Blues Odyssey

Photo: Julia Wesely
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There’s a song James Blood Ulmer sings called “Jazz Is the Teacher, Funk is the Preacher.” If you bring in Mother Blues, along with the family hothead, Rock and Roll, you’ll have a better picture of the musical pedigree of this iconic guitar player and singer. With over 70 years performing behind him, Ulmer, who closes Tigertail Productions’ month-long “FIRE” festival this weekend, still has new revelations to make through his music.

 

There were detours down many side roads before Ulmer discovered jazz and, ultimately, the blues. During his childhood in tiny, segregated St. Matthews, South Carolina, the only music Ulmer's father would allow in the house was gospel. “When I was coming up,” Ulmer said, “we didn’t have tape recorders and all that stuff to listen to music, we had the radio station. Only music I heard coming up [on the radio] was hillbilly music….My father didn’t let no record players in his house. They were church people. Church people didn’t go for blues, no rock and roll, none of that shit.”

 

There was, of course, live music in the way of gospel, and plenty of it. “Our entertainment was going to see our family…. On Saturday nights we would have these performances where everybody in the family would sing, dance, play and everyone would sit and listen.”

 

Rehearsal, whether of speeches or Sunday school songs, were a fact of life early on. “When I was six my father started a gospel group called the Southern Sons,” said Ulmer. They sang at area churches, and even traveled to open for major gospel groups like the Five Blind Boys of Alabama and the National Clouds of Joy. Ulmer has been in the music business ever since.

 

At 18, he left home and quickly began filling in the gaps in his musical education. His travels read like a road map of black American music in the 20th century: “South Carolina, it was gospel, Pittsburgh, it was doo wop and R&B, then I moved to Ohio and it was progressive jazz… I moved from there to Detroit. I went to actually study music…learning how to write music down on a piece of paper.”

 

It was when Ulmer finally found his way to New York City, where he still lives, that he played with jazz greats such as drummer Art Blakey and saxophonists like Joe Henderson and Ornette Coleman. It was Coleman who would have a profound influence on Ulmer’s evolving technique.

 

Coleman had pioneered a new system of playing that he called "harmolodics," a cerebral form of new jazz that sought to free the style from traditional Western scales and harmonies. The story goes that Ulmer, having practiced chords incessantly and frustratingly at Coleman's insistence, went to sleep and dreamt of how to change his guitar’s tuning in order to unlock the key to Coleman’s harmolodic system. When he awoke, he tuned his guitar with four strings on one note and the remaining two on another. Everything suddenly worked. The way Ulmer tunes, he explained, the guitar “becomes a four-stringed instrument with a two-stringed drone. You have to leave the Western sound of the guitar to get to that.”

 

Ulmer plucks his Gibson guitar with just the thumb of his right hand. He recounted long ago seeing Spanish classical guitarist Andrés Segovia in concert and being astonished at how Segovia plucked the strings with all five fingers. He made a vow to himself: “Now I had to make more sound with one finger than he did with five. I want to play with one finger and get more sound than Segovia. That tuning and my one finger, it’s almost there,” he laughed.

 

Indeed, as a jazz instrumentalist, Ulmer is considered an innovator and an iconoclast, taking the guitar to places it had never before been within the jazz idiom. It was only late in his career, however, at the suggestion of fellow guitarist Vernon Reid, that he eventually found his way around to the mother of all American roots music, the blues.

 

Ulmer sings and plays, and his voice is soulful, rich and ragged, with shades of Muddy Waters or Howling Wolf. His “Little Red Rooster” could give Willie Dixon a run for his money, and when Ulmer lets loose his demonic cackle on his own composition, “The Devil’s Got to Burn,” you can almost imagine the legendary Robert Johnson of “Crossroad Blues” fame rising from his grave and peering up at Ulmer from over his headstone.

 

As in the beginning, when Ulmer and his brother and friends would pile into the car and his father would take them on the road to gigs, or performing on a street corner in Pittsburgh to make his $6 weekly rent, so the practical aspects of the music business shape Ulmer’s career today. Just a man and his guitar is much more flexible than a whole jazz or funk ensemble. It is also enriching artistically: “Solo is putting everything you do in one basket. I am a solo blues man,” said Ulmer with satisfaction.

 

Even at 77, Ulmer doesn’t seem to spend a lot of time looking back. “We sing to survive,” he said, “we sing to keep a certain spirit going. You keep going, and then that spirit moves on and moves on.” Reflecting back on his gospel beginnings in St. Matthews, he said, “I would like to think that I have been moving forward since then.”

 

James Blood Ulmer, FIRE festival, 8:30 p.m., Saturday, April 29, Miami-Dade County Auditorium On Stage Black Box, 2901 W. Flagler St., Miami; tickets $35 general admission; tigertail.org or 305-324-4337.

 


 



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