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. Part 2 looked at his next four Columbia albums: In the Tradition, Illusions, Blythe Spirit, and Elaborations. Today, the series concludes with an examination of the end of Blythe’s Columbia tenure, which includes the albums Light Blue: Arthur Blythe Plays Thelonious Monk, Put Sunshine In It, Da-Da, and Basic Blythe.
Light Blue, released in 1983, was the third album to feature Blythe’s early ’80s working band of guitarist Kelvyn Bell, cellist Abdul Wadud, tuba player Bob Stewart, and drummer Bobby Battle. Unlike Blythe Spirit and Elaborations, though, there were no guests at all; this was just five men working through six Monk compositions in just over 40 minutes. The tunes in question — “We See,” “Light Blue,” “Off Minor,” “Epistrophy,” “Coming on the Hudson,” and “Nutty” — are not all among Monk’s best-known pieces. Still, you can tell within seconds that they came from his pen, and Blythe and company don’t try to bend the melodies out of shape too much, or update the rhythms. Bell’s guitar playing frequently consists of just repeating the main line (though he does take a pretty wild solo on “Epistrophy”). Battle’s drumming is straightforward, mostly timekeeping, and Stewart takes the bassist’s role. Wadud gets wild a few times, traveling into the cello’s upper register for a violin-like effect. Blythe himself is in a fierce, crying mode throughout, digging deep into the blues on the slower tracks (“Light Blue,” “Coming on the Hudson”) and rocking the party on the faster ones.
For some reason, Light Blue isn’t on streaming services, but here’s the title track:
Blythe’s next album, 1985’s Put Sunshine In It, was a complete break with his past. No one who’d played on any of the previous albums was present. In fact, only two of its six tracks, the title piece and the closing “Sentimental Walk (Theme from Diva),” featured a full band at all. Most of the music was created by keyboardist and drum programmer Todd Cochran, who worked with Blythe, producer George Butler and co-producer Bruce Purse to build pop-R&B tracks for the saxophonist to play over. The result was somewhere between a David Sanborn album and what Miles Davis would do the following year on Tutu. Even when there’s a full band, as on “Put Sunshine In It,” which features Michael O’Neill on guitar, Alphonso Johnson on bass, Leon “Ndugu” Chancler on drums, and Paulinho da Costa on percussion, they’re so locked into the machine groove that they might as well be programmed, too. The version of “Sentimental Walk” offers O’Neill, da Costa, Stanley Clarke on bass and Gerry Brown on drums, all swaying along to a gentle click track. Blythe’s playing has his usual fullness of tone, but the solos are as restrained as if he was backing Anita Baker or Tina Turner. Indeed, any track from this record could have been a Private Dancer B-side. It’s good, for what it is, but don’t come in expecting anything like what he was known for.
Blythe returned to making music with a full band on his next album, 1986’s Da-Da. The core group included Olu Dara on cornet, John Hicks on piano, Cecil McBee on bass, and Bobby Battle on drums. Bob Stewart and Kelvyn Bell returned for a version of “Break Tune,” originally recorded on In the Tradition; Geri Allen played keyboards on that track, and “Esquinas (Corners).” This music is played in an organic, free style, but built on melodies so strong and repetitive they’re basically vamps. As on Put Sunshine In It, keyboards dominate, shimmering across the landscape like a moving cloud of glitter, and the drums sound programmed even when they’re not. Dara’s cornet is pushed through a pedal or a filter or something; it sounds like another keyboard. This album is like a cross between Tutu and Ornette Coleman‘s In All Languages, on which he reunited his late ’50s quartet only to push their music through the most heavy-handed production techniques money could buy in 1987 (the second disc of the album featured Prime Time, and sounded like he’d hired Trevor Horn to produce, Fairlight samplers, drum pads and all). Like its predecessor, this works pretty well as a lush instrumental R&B record, but the question of whether or not it’s actually jazz is wide open.
Here’s “Splain Thing,” uploaded by Bruce Purse, who played synths on the track:
Arthur Blythe‘s final album for Columbia Records, Basic Blythe, was in fact a deeply sophisticated reworking of material from throughout his career. It featured John Hicks on piano, Anthony Cox on bass, and Bobby Battle on drums, plus an eight-piece string section: four violins, two violas, and two cellos. On it, he re-recorded three tunes from his back catalog — “Lenox Avenue Breakdown,” “As of Yet,” and “Faceless Woman” — added another Thelonious Monk tune to his repertoire (“Ruby My Dear”) and bracketed the whole thing with two versions of the standard “Autumn in New York.” Transforming tunes that were originally guitar-and-tuba-driven free funk grooves into more conventionally swinging, and lushly arranged, jazz tunes brings out some new aspects of the melodies; the strings and piano on “As of Yet” are particularly powerful. It’s practically a salsa romantica piece by the time the band’s done. The two versions of “Autumn in New York” are fascinating. The first is only three minutes long, and half of that features just Blythe and the strings; eventually the rest of the quartet comes in, turning it into an after-midnight ballad. The second version is eight minutes long, and uptempo; Hicks takes a beautiful extended solo. Basic Blythe is anything but — he’d never done anything like this before, and it was a powerful statement from a mature artist (he was almost 50 when it was released). Its stately feel, and the immensity of Blythe’s sound on the horn, remind me of Dexter Gordon‘s Sophisticated Giant, from a decade earlier. Though that album had no strings, the mood is similar.
Arthur Blythe continued to record in the 1990s and early 2000s, making three albums for Enja and several for Savant. He appeared on two albums by James “Blood” Ulmer‘s Music Revelation Ensemble, and two by the World Saxophone Quartet. He died of complications from Parkinson’s Disease in March 2017.