Beginning in the late 1970s, alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe recorded a string of highly creative, pathbreaking albums, the majority of which have been reissued in recent years. We’re digging into them this week. Part 1 of this series discussed his live albums The Grip and Metamorphosis, his first studio album Bush Baby, and his Columbia Records debut, Lenox Avenue Breakdown. In this installment, we’ll look at his next four Columbia albums: In the Tradition, Illusions, Blythe Spirit, and Elaborations.
The cover of In the Tradition has Blythe wearing an old-style pinstripe suit and a bowler hat, crossing the street with his horn, in front of a vintage car, its whitewall tire seeming to glow behind him. For the album, he abandoned the tuba, cello, and other instruments he’d become known for employing, instead putting together a standard quartet with Stanley Cowell on piano, Fred Hopkins on bass, and Steve McCall on drums.
In the Tradition, in keeping with its title, features only two Blythe originals, “Hip Dripper” and “Break Tune,” the latter of which he’d re-record on 1986’s Da-Da. The other four tracks are versions of Fats Waller‘s “Jitterbug Waltz,” Duke Ellington‘s “In a Sentimental Mood,” Juan Tizol‘s “Caravan,” and John Coltrane‘s “Naima.” It’s a short album, barely 33 minutes, and it has a weird but punchy mix. McCall’s drums are thick and martial, while Hopkins’ bass is a powerful boom. It mostly doesn’t have that Seventies rubber-band sound, either. Blythe is playing in a particularly sharp and biting manner throughout; he has the same big, round sound as always, but he erupts in fierce cries at the end of long, precisely articulated lines that almost bring to mind David Murray. Both he and Cowell are mixed in a very old-school way; the piano has an almost honky-tonk, tinkling quality.
If In the Tradition had been a way of convincing jazz listeners that Blythe wasn’t some kind of avant-garde weirdo, his third Columbia album, 1980’s Illusions, was exactly the opposite: a determined, forward-looking statement of purpose. It might be his single greatest work.
Illusions features three tracks each by two different bands. One is the acoustic quartet featured on In the Tradition, with John Hicks on piano instead of Stanley Cowell. The other is a more avant-garde, loft-jazz-ish quintet with James “Blood” Ulmer on guitar, Abdul Wadud on cello, Bob Stewart on tuba, and Bobby Battle on drums. These two ensembles alternate, and the material they perform is a mix of old and new as well; three of the six compositions come from Blythe’s pre-Columbia albums. The first track is a radical reworking of “Bush Baby,” from the 1977 disc of the same name; where that album was arranged for alto sax, tuba, and congas, this new version is performed by the quintet and sounds like a bridge between the loft jazz scene and Miles Davis‘s On the Corner. Stewart and Battle set up a strutting rhythm so tight it’s almost programmed, Wadud’s cello offers stinging interjections, and Ulmer’s guitar is sharp and biting. Blythe’s soloing is fierce and steeped in R&B. The quartet gets the other two old songs. “My Son Ra” was originally a solo saxophone piece and is now a lush, David Murray-ish ballad (no surprise, since Hicks, Hopkins and McCall all worked with Murray as well during this era), while “As of Yet,” once a nearly 13-minute blowout, is a herky-jerky but swinging piece with an almost Ornette Coleman-esque bounce. The title piece is a frantic quintet explosion, while “Carespin’ With Mamie,” named for his wife, is romantic but high-energy, with an almost Middle Eastern feel at times.
Blythe Spirit, from 1981, features the quintet from Illusions on four tracks, but Kelvyn Bell has replaced Ulmer on guitar. The acoustic quartet reappears, delivering a version of the standard “Misty.” Blythe, Wadud, and Stewart re-record “Spirits in the Field,” from The Grip. The album ends with a sax/tuba/organ version of the hymn “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” with Amina Claudine Myers guesting at the keyboard. Bell is a more conventional player than Ulmer, so the tunes on which he appears — “Contemplation,” “Faceless Woman,” “Reverence,” and “Strike Up the Band” — have a bluesy feel even when Wadud is zipping up to the top of the cello’s range to attack like a mad violinist. His playing on “Contemplation” is some of the most aggressive, squealing work I’ve ever heard from him, and drummer Bobby Battle is absolutely hammering the kit. “Faceless Woman” is an Ornette-ish kind of title for a piece of music, and it has that sort of character, though it’s a little more conventional than that; it’s a ballad with extra bite. The version of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Strike Up the Band” that opens the album’s second side is somewhere between manic and apocalyptic, while “Misty” is romantic without being mellow. “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” with Myers, teeters on the edge of cheese. Though she’s a master of the organ, her playing here is half gospel, half hockey rink, and the song itself has a pretty simplistic, overly cheery melody that doesn’t give Stewart much to do but fart along while Blythe churches the place up. It’s an interesting novelty, and a good closer, but a whole album with this instrumentation would have been awful.
Blythe’s 1982 album Elaborations retains the main band from Blythe Spirit — Bell, Wadud, Stewart, and Battle — and adds bassist Wilber Morris (whose name is misspelled “Wilbur” in the credits) on one track and percussionist Muhammad Abdullah, from Metamorphosis and The Grip, on another. The music is a little more conventional than that on Blythe Spirit, though. The group has figured out its collective voice, and is now digging deeper into the grooves, and swinging a little harder than before. Stewart takes an absolutely mind-blowing solo on “Metamorphosis,” one of two old tunes the group revisits; he sounds like a foghorn. The other re-recording is “Lower Nile,” here awarded a definite article (“The Lower Nile”). It’s the longest track on the album, at nearly 11 minutes, and Abdullah’s congas, which were also heard on the original 1977 live recording, add a surprising amount to the music. Wadud is playing a strong, mournful countermelody alongside Blythe’s Middle Eastern horn line, and Bell’s guitar rings out strongly throughout as Battle hammers the beat home. This album isn’t streaming, for some reason, but here’s “Metamorphosis”:
In the final installment of this series, we’ll deal with Arthur Blythe‘s last four albums for Columbia, which include a tribute to Thelonious Monk and a weird electronic experiment.
In the Tradition, Illusions, Blythe Spirit and Lenox Avenue Breakdown (reviewed yesterday) have been remastered and reissued as a two-CD set; get it from Amazon.
Elaborations has also been reissued, along with Light Blue: Arthur Blythe Plays Thelonious Monk and Put Sunshine In It, which we’ll talk about next, as a two-CD set; get it from Amazon.