Alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe was a fascinating figure who emerged at the end of the 1960s, but whose best and most innovative work was done in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Over the course of the next little while, I’m going to discuss his first 12 albums as a leader, which span from 1977 to 1988. Most of these records came out on Columbia, and are now available in three multi-disc sets from the Beat Goes On label; I’ll link to them as we go along, so you can buy them, if you want.
Blythe was born in Los Angeles in July 1940, and grew up in San Diego. He made his recorded debut on Horace Tapscott‘s 1969 album The Giant is Awakened, and worked extensively with Tapscott’s Underground Musicians and Artists Association (UGMAA) before moving to New York in the mid-’70s. He gigged around, working with Lester Bowie, Julius Hemphill, Woody Shaw and others before recording a concert that was split into two albums for the India Navigation label.
The first volume, The Grip, featured six tracks ranging from the three-minute solo sax piece “My Son Ra” to the nearly 13-minute “As of Yet.” Blythe’s band on this date was truly unique, including Ahmed Abdullah on trumpet, Bob Stewart on tuba, Abdul Wadud on cello, Steve Reid on drums and Muhammad Abdullah on percussion. The music had a rich, full sound which the dynamic range of the ensemble, particularly the horns, emphasized in a thrilling manner. Blythe’s tone on the alto was massive; he made it sound almost like a tenor at times, and even when he ascended into the horn’s upper register he never aimed for the bent squeal of Ornette Coleman. His lines contained great depth and an inescapable melancholy, and he seemed, like Albert Ayler, to be drawing on ideas and feelings that predated jazz, as denoted by song titles like “Sunrise Service,” “Spirits in the Field,” and “Lower Nile.”
The second of his two live albums, Metamorphosis, contained just three tracks: the 18-minute “Duet for Two,” featuring himself and Wadud, and two full-band performances, the title piece and “Shadows.” These two albums were combined into a single CD, In Concert: Metamorphosis/The Grip, which is out of print and not on streaming services, but it’s not that hard to find.
In between the two India Navigation releases, Blythe recorded Bush Baby for the Adelphi label. It was a stripped-down, four-track release featuring just himself, Stewart on tuba, and Ahkmed Abdullah on congas. On this album, he was billed as Black Arthur Blythe, as he had been on The Giant is Awakened and Azar Lawrence‘s Bridge Into the New Age, from 1974. Though he gets some time in the spotlight, most notably on “For Fats,” Abdullah’s contributions throughout the album are mostly relatively quiet. There’s no way he can approach the volume or power of a traditional drummer, even one playing a minimal jazz kit. As a consequence, the music often feels like a series of duets between Blythe and Stewart. Since the latter man was a virtuoso on the tuba, creating countermelodies as well as pulsing bass lines as the saxophonist flew in ever-more elaborate spiraling arcs, their interactions are fascinating. Unfortunately, Bush Baby has never been reissued on CD, not even in Japan. Blythe would re-record its title track in a radically different form on 1980’s Illusions, though, the first of many examples of him revisiting material.
Blythe signed to Columbia Records in 1978, releasing his first album for them the following year. He was a veteran artist, closing in on 40, when he did so. He was a man with strong ideas, a book of compositions, and a pool of collaborators drawn largely from New York’s loft jazz scene but also from his time in Los Angeles and his tenure as a respected sideman. On Lenox Avenue Breakdown, he put together a killer band including James Newton on flute, James “Blood” Ulmer on guitar, Stewart on tuba, Cecil McBee on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Guilherme Franco on percussion. The four compositions — “Down San Diego Way,” the title track, “Slidin’ Through,” and “Odessa” — travel through a variety of moods. The opener is a pulsing, jumpy, almost Latin number with Blythe and Newton serving as the lead voices, while Stewart and McBee create a rhythmic bed that sways like grass in the wind. Ulmer is a background element here, rarely jumping out of the ensemble, and Franco stays mostly out of DeJohnette’s way, other than adding a few squealing sounds as the music fades out. “Lenox Avenue Breakdown,” by contrast, is a fierce New York streetscape. Blythe crawls down into the alto’s low range, shadowed by the bassist, as Ulmer chops away at the strings. “Slidin’ Through” is a more conventionally swinging piece, while “Odessa” ends the album in passionate style, with Ulmer taking his most jagged and unfettered solo.
Lenox Avenue Breakdown and Blythe’s next three albums — In the Tradition, Illusions, and Blythe Spirit — are all currently available as a two-CD set that is very much worth your time. Get it from Amazon. We’ll be talking about those other three albums, as well as 1982’s Elaborations, in the next installment of this series.
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