By Martine Ehrenclou
Former musical director and guitarist for Jose Feliciano, Ulrich Ellison is internationally recognized as a top flight guitarist, singer, songwriter, and music producer. Born in Austria, now based in Austin, Texas, Ellison is the winner of three Downbeat Awards and three Austin Music Awards for “Best Blues/Soul/Funk” and the latest for “Best Guitar.” A multi-faceted artist, Ellison has been called “The Mozart of blues-rock” who carves out a unique and innovative voice on guitar and blurs the line between blues and modern rock.
Moving to the US on a Fulbright scholarship in 2007, Ellison studied jazz guitar at the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music at The University of Texas at Austin. After graduating, he became a successful sideman for several notable Austin acts, and formed the Ulrich Ellison trio, then Ulrich Ellison And Tribe.
His newest and fifth release, Power of Soul It is a tribute to the late Jimi Hendrix featuring luminaries Tommy Shannon (SRV), David Grissom (John Mellencamp), Matt Schofield, Greg Koch and the legendary blues voice Chris Farlowe (Colosseum, Hamburg Blues Band). Production was done with the help of Obie Obrien (Bon Jovi) and Bill Johnson (Austin City Limits).
I asked Ulrich to tell me about Power of Soul: A Tribute To Jimi Hendrix and how it came about. I mentioned that the album is a stunning release with such an innovative and creative approach to the songs.
Ulrich said, “Thanks so much, I’m glad you feel that way. It has been somewhat of a blessing in disguise. The pandemic ended so many musical plans for so many musicians, and this album almost never happened. But then, because everyone was stuck at home, it gave me a chance to gather all these amazing guests, like a dream come true.” He added, “This is my first and maybe only tribute effort, and for my own musical story, Jimi was the best pick I could have made. We all learned so much more about his music and personality in the process.”
Ulrich did not set out to record an album where he sounded like Hendrix. I asked him to describe the process of re-envisioning the 11 tracks.
“No, I never did. First of all,” he said. “I have too much respect of Jimi and it would be foolish to attempt being another “Jimi” clone. If there’s anything you can learn from Jimi as a guitarist then it’s how to find your own voice. That’s what I was attempting to do here – and that’s why you can hear Indian tabla rhythms, Middle Eastern moods and jazz-fusion jams, as well as soft-spoken, heartfelt ballads. This album has helped me to reconnect to my own musical voice.”
And part of what stands out about Power of Soul is Ulrich’s unique take on each track. Curious about how he chose songs that weren’t exactly obscure, but divine gems, I asked Ulrich how he chose them.
“First of all, it doesn’t hurt to have amazing musicians on board,” he said. “Tommy Shannon is one of the all-time musical legends, and his bass playing with SRV and Johnny (Winter) helped shape the “New Blues Revival”. To have him play on this song is like a young boy’s dream come true. I’ve known Tommy for 10 some years, and his kind musical spirit, friendship and humor have deeply inspired me. It’s these human connections that make the track so rich, including Jason McKenzie’s delicate drumming and Greg Koch’s amazing musicality on slide and guest lead.”
Ulrich continued. “Overall, I tried to avoid the typical Hendrix covers and go more for Jimi’s delicate songwriting side that is maybe a bit less known than his burning rock personality. After all, he was a pretty soft-spoken and gentle character. So I tried to bring these qualities forward with my song choices.”
Impressed with Ulrich’s version of “Manic Depression,” I said, “It’s beautiful and unique with Indian fusion. Tell me how that song came about.”
“Thanks so much. Honestly, this is one of the most unique grooves of rock history and I’ve always loved African-style 12/8 rhythm. Our drummer Jason McKenzie is a world-class tabla player and so it was pretty obvious to add Tabla to the intro. The rest that you hear is more of a “stream-of-consciousness” improvisation between the tabla and 12/8 groove,” Ulrich explained. “This is such a great arrangement to play live, and one of the songs we’ve been playing for 1-2 years before it was recorded.”
Many young players get into Jimi Hendrix. I wondered about Ulrich’s journey and how Hendrix made such a lasting impression.
“I’ll be honest – it wasn’t love at first sight,” Ulrich said. “I still remember being a teenager and being turned off by the chaos of out-of-tune guitars, feedback orgies on 15+min tracks…. I just didn’t get him. Then I saw footage of him – and that changed everything. I ended up playing at a Hendrix Tribute around age 23 where I had to deep-study the core body of his work, and that was really eye-opening. Some of the tones and rhythms he used are still so valid today. To me, he is the messiah of rock guitar that laid the ground work for all rock guitar virtuosos. But he was also a candid songwriter and under-appreciated singer. Some of my favorite songs of Jimi are ballads like “Angel” and “May This Be Love”.
I asked, “You were taken off the road like everyone else because of the pandemic. How did you pull this album together in lockdown? Had you been playing these Hendrix songs already, performing them as they are on Power of Soul or did you re-invent them during the pandemic?”
Ulrich shared, “Thinking back it was a really difficult time. We were actually in the middle of tour rehearsals, March 13, 2020 was the day we were supposed to fly to Oslo to play our first show. That was the day Europe got locked down. So we hastily changed plans and booked 3 days in the studio, to at least get the album in the can that was originally planned to happen after the tour. After recording for 1 1/2 days, we had to shut down as well, but thankfully, all the rhythm section tracks were already recorded!”
In answer to my question about whether he had previously performed these songs or if he came up with the arrangements during the pandemic, Ulrich said, “As far as the song arrangement goes, about half of them were created while playing live with my trio over the years. We never focus on cover songs but 2-3 Jimi tunes are usually part of my set. I think that’s why this album sounds so organic. Like I mentioned – we recorded 80% of it – that’s all the basic tracks – in 1 1/2 days. The pandemic forced us to work quickly and live-oriented.
“It would never have been possible without the core rhythm section consisting of Sabine Ellison on bass and Jason McKenzie on tabla and drums.”
Wondering about the music heavyweights who guested on Power of Soul, I asked how he enlisted Tommy Shannon, Matt Schofield, Greg Koch, David Grissom—kind of the musical “dream team” for any guitar album. I asked, “It couldn’t have been easy to decide who played on which song. Or was it?”
“It kind of fell in place,” Ulrich replied. “Believe it or not – the first impulse for the idea was that I was locked down while being on the road, without my gear to finish overdubs! (laughs) So I invited friends for those tracks that were missing lead overdubs, who were stuck at home with access to gear. David Grissom was the first, and he did a stunning guitar part and solo on “Love Or Confusion.” Then Matt was kind enough to add his voice to “Angel”, and added a completely new flavor to it. It was then that I actively decided to invite more guests. The last was Chris Farlowe one “Rock Me Baby” – that was just the crowning!”
Ulrich added, “We guitar players tend to focus ourselves mainly on a record (laughs) – so it felt refreshing and mature to open up the playing field and make room for a collaborative effort… I’m so glad the pandemic made me!”
I asked if Ulrich had performed with them in the past.
“I’ve shared the stage with Tommy and jammed with Matt and David before. Greg Koch was introduced to me via my label boss Joe Romagnola (Grooveyard Records), and Chris Farlowe I met via Mr. Hoscher, the Founder of The Vienna Blues Spring Festival. I feel like this album has bonded us even more!”
Given that Ulrich seems to have a distinct buoyancy and positive attitude, I wondered if it was always that way during the pandemic.
Ulrich said, “You know, it started as a nightmare but ended up becoming one of my most fruitful phases. (laughs). The added focus of being locked in, no gigs to play and no distractions made me very productive. Not only did I finish this album, but I also home-produced a Hendrix Masterclass that became the foundation of my current TGT Academy with now over 100 students worldwide. I ended up producing at least 3 more albums as a producer, one involving the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and Jon Bon Jovi’s engineer Obie O’Brien. Mostly done during a pandemic, remotely!”
There’s more to this extraordinary musician. He also created a guitar academy during the pandemic to help guitar players. I asked him about Total Guitar Transformation (TGT).
“You know, it kind of came to me. Thanks pandemic! (laughs.) As I was locked down, there was one simple thought: if I can’t perform, what else can I do to share my musicality with the world? Doing streaming concerts never appealed to me – so there were 2 things left: producing music and coaching other musicians. I did both – but then the success of TGT kind of made it clear where I should put my energy,” he explained. “After a little market study it became clear that there were a lot of guitarists that had been playing for decades – but kind of stagnated because of their personal lives, lack of time or motivation. Once you’ve plateaued like that it’s hard to “unstuck” yourself without help. Those are the players I specialize in – the ones that have almost given up that they might be able to improvise on a really high level like their heroes.”
In addition to TGT, Ulrich created “Rock/Blues Guitar Improvisation Master Group.” I asked him to tell me about it.
“Oh yes, our Facebook group. I just felt the need to supply guitar players in need of getting better with some “real”, hands-on training that is more rooted in “playing” than theory. There are thousands of online resources today to learn guitar – but very few that combine on-demand video learning with feedback and personal lessons. My teaching approach is firmly rooted in understanding players like Hendrix and being able to get a grasp on his music, no matter what level you are currently. In the group, I offer one free zoom chat for anyone seriously stuck in their playing, where we figure out what the roadblocks are and how to become the player they want to be. It has turned out that so many of these guitarists want to join TGT that we had to put a member cap on our program. (laughs) It’s now invite-only.”
I was struck by the giving nature of Ulrich Ellison. There also seemed to be a “We are all one tribe” vibe throughout his music. I encouraged him to elaborate on that.
He said, “I believe that music connects the cultures. We all have more in common than what separates us. I like to tap into that spirit and hopefully remind people a little bit of that.”
I said, “Your press information states, ‘It’s also my vision to make future music that connects with music flavors from across the world—may it be Indian, Middle Eastern, Celtic, South African or tribal music.’” that came about.
“Good question!” he said. “I think it’s rooted in my life story. I grew up in Austria, with a family tree stretching back to Ireland (hence the last name from my grandmother’s side), traveled early on with my family, and spent 8 months in the US state Nebraska as a teenager. I think my parents are just very open-minded and trusting and have allowed me to explore early on. I live in Turkey at the moment, have traveled through India, lived in Austin TX for 13 years, played all over Europe, Australia, the US – I feel that all those travels helped shaping my mindset.”
Which led me to my next question, “Do you believe in the healing power of music?”
With enthusiasm Ulrich said, “Absolutely. There is more to it than the ear or eye can experience.”
For more information about Ulrich Ellison’s Power of Soul see Here
Ulrich Ellison website Here
Total Guitar Transformation website Here
“Rock Me Baby”