|Arthur Blythe photo from SRF.CH|
By Lee Rice Epstein
My first response, after seeing the announcement of Arthur Blythe’s death, was “In or out? Get you a genius who can play both.” In my mind, that sums up Blythe entirely, not a chameleon but a master, someone who excelled at every aspect of jazz, effortlessly stepping from standards to free, contemporary to retro.
One could say Blythe’s breadth is most plainly visible in the years 1978–1979, when he released both Lenox Avenue Breakdown and In the Tradition for Columbia Records. On the surface, the two albums couldn’t be more different. One a rousing free jazz masterpiece, the other an equally masterful tribute to jazz past. By that time, Blythe had already released a trio of energetic albums on India Navigation and Adelphi, which raised his profile considerably, bringing in a somewhat ill-fated deal from Columbia. Blythe’s tuba trio paired his alto saxophone with Stewart’s tuba, in something of a sister group to Sam Rivers and Joe Daley’s tuba trio work. But, as a kind of theme that would continue throughout Blythe’s career, he and Rivers came at the same group from radically different directions. And when they eventually came together for Roots, with Chico Freeman, the result was fantastic.
Although his time at Columbia is generally seen as a missed opportunity, in the 10 years Blythe recorded for Columbia, he released nine albums, including the stellar Illusions and Light Blue, a tribute to Thelonious Monk featuring an unorthodox quintet with Stewart on tuba, Bobby Battle on drums, Abdul Wadud on cello, and Defunkt guitarist Kelvyn Bell. Four of these (In The Tradition, Lenox Avenue Breakdown, Illusions, and Blythe Spirit) were compiled on a recent BGO reissue. His final Columbia release was a Blythe-with-strings style album, Basic Blythe, which is an oddball album, certainly, but serves to demonstrate his incredible range as player and composer. The group’s take on his classic “Lenox Avenue Breakdown” is textured and restrained where the original is rough and hard-charging, yet, in each, Blythe’s saxophone is bright and piercing, his tone crisp and soulful.
Blythe, a native Angeleno, first appeared as the lone horn on Horace Tapscott’s The Giant Is Awakened. And his discography is filled with seminal records on which Blythe played a supporting role, including Julius Hemphill’s ‘Coon Bid’Ness, Lester Bowie’s The 5th Power and African Children, and Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition. He put in a stint with the World Saxophone Quartet, stepping in for Hemphill, and was a member of both The Leaders and Roots, along with Chico Freeman. All three are somewhat in/out groups, on their own quite different terms, but they reflect, as does every album he recorded, Blythe’s generous, warm spirit.
And then of course, there are several concerts available on YouTube. Here you can see him in action, with some of his most vital groups and collaborators.
Blythe, Wadud, Stewart, Battle quartet live in Berlin, 1980
Blythe, Stewart, Bell, Wadud, Battle quintet live at Montreux, 1981
Blythe, Stewart, Ed Thigpen trio live in 1995
Blythe, Stewart, Cecil Brooks trio live in 2003