Basic Beauty: Arthur Blythe on Columbia

Jakob Baekgaard BY

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Taken together, Blythe's nine albums for Columbia form a major achievement in jazz and the diversity and consistently high quality of the music make all these albums worth investigating.
Back in 2016, BGO Records started reissuing the complete works of alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe (1940-2017) on Columbia. The first volume containing Lenox Avenue Breakdown (1979), In the Tradition (1980), Illusions and Blythe Spirit (1981) has already been reviewed on AAJ. The following two volumes complete the project of putting an important body of work from one of the great, unsung saxophonists in jazz history back into circulation.

Arthur Blythe
Elaborations/Light Blue: Arthur Blythe Plays Thelonious Monk/Put Sunshine In It
BGO Records

The second volume of Arthur Blythe on Columbia features three different albums that show the stylistic diversity of the saxophonist, who summed up his eclectic approach in an interview with Ben Sidran: "The music that I deal with has elements of bebop to ballad, swing to sweet, blues to boogie, and pop to rock." Perhaps, it was his expressive, unpolished tone and his fondness for challenging himself that gave him a reputation as being avantgarde, but at the heart of it all was always a clear sense of swing and melody. This is also the case with Elaborations that continued Blythe's original approach to instrumentation where the familiar instruments of guitar (Kelvyn Bell) and drums (Bobby Battle) were supplemented by Bob Stewart's tuba and Abdul Wadud's cello.

In fact, the idea of bringing in the tuba was both a step forward and a step back to the time where the tuba played the role of the bass. The same thing can be said about Blythe's music in general. It both looks back to the great sounds of tradition and looks forward to the future. It is not a coincidence that Blythe wanted original players with their own sound. He was not interested in repeating the past, but in playing the future through tradition. In the process, he escaped the trappings of the limiting clichés of genre. On Elaborations (1982) the music swings, screams, sings and bounces along to a joyful beat. There are breakneck chases in the spirit of Bird and relaxed strolls through strange landscapes of rhythm. Blythe travels everywhere and he even takes on the arabesque patterns of an Egyptian sound with mourning cello on "The Lower Nile."

The same band with Battle, Bell, Stewart and Wadud later taped an homage to Thelonious Monk on Light Blue: Arthur Blythe Plays Thelonious Monk (1983). The stroke of genius was to have one original musical mind interpret another and doing it without Monk's signature instrument: the piano. Instead, the album separates the instrumental genius from the compositional genius of Monk that is described accurately by Yousef Yancy in the original liner notes to the album:

"In Monk's compositions one encounters a very unique approach to the structure of the melodic line over the internal harmonic structure, which seems to float independently, accompanied by a rhythmic foundation most individual in nature. These three elements brought together horizontally set up a kind of vertical cross-rhythmic structure in time and space."

It is exactly this aesthetic that Blythe succeeds in translating congenially as the knotty, polyphonic rhythmic language of the band provides a distinct accompaniment to Blythe's original sound on the saxophone.

When Blythe two years later exchanged the sound of his band with the electronic pop landscape curated by pianist Todd Cochran on Put Sunshine In It (1985), he kept his own voice without succumbing too much to a smooth jazz aesthetic. Instead, it is exactly the contrasts between the slick funky luxury of Cochran's synthesizers and drum machines and Blythe's original exploration of smooth jazz tropes that provide the raisons d'être of the album. The raw, emotional sound of Blythe adds a vulnerable human touch to the perfection of the machines and the organic element is enhanced by the help of various musicians, including bassist Alphonso Johnson and percussionist Paulinho DaCosta.

Arthur Blythe
Da-Da/Basic Blythe
BGO Records

When Blythe released the follow-up to Put Sunshine In It, he had shunned the commercial experiment of that particular record, but Da-Da (1986) still showed signs of its predecessor. It is hard to imagine a track like "Splain Thing" with its bombastic keyboard cascades and slap bass without the influence of Put Sunshine In It, but Da-Da also underlined that Blythe had found a new balance between experiments and commercialism. His strong reading of John Coltrane's "Crescent" with John Hicks' forceful piano waves underlines the spiritual element of the music and the cut is pure acoustic pleasure. Hicks also turns up on the tender ballad "After Paris" and another ballad "Esquinas (Corners)" foreshadows Blythe's swansong on Columbia with its string arrangements.

The idea of a great alto saxophonist wanting to do an album with strings is not surprising, just think of Charlie Parker and Art Pepper, who both delivered masterpieces with strings. Arthur Blythe enters the pantheon of great string releases with Basic Blythe (1988). The album is bookended by the standard "Autumn in New York" and in between his interpretations of this classic, Blythe makes references to his own recorded past on Columbia with the title track from Lenox Avenue Breakdown (1979) and "Faceless Woman" from Blythe Spirit (1981) and he even includes a Monk tune, "Ruby My Dear," which he didn't record on his tribute to the great composer and pianist.

Just like Arthur Blythe is not an ordinary saxophonist, Basic Blythe is not a conventional album with strings. It contains the obligatory ballads, but also moves into more unpredictable rhythmic territory without breaking the emotional mood of the album (hear Blythe revisiting his composition "Faceless Woman" in the attached YouTube-video to hear an example of his dynamic work with strings). In the center of it all is Blythe's soulful and expressive playing. Simply said, Basic Blythe is just beautiful and a fitting end to his stay at Columbia.

Taken together, Blythe's nine albums for Columbia form a major achievement in jazz and the diversity and consistently high quality of the music make all these albums worth investigating. The reissues are done in the best possible way with original album art and liner notes and not least Charles Waring's superb new liner essays that draw on fresh interviews with participants from the albums.

Tracks and Personnel

Elaborations/Light Blue: Arthur Blythe Plays Thelonious Monk/Put Sunshine In It

Tracks: CD1: Elaborations; Metamorphosis; Sister Daisy; One Mint Julep; Shadows; The Lower Nile. CD2: We See; Light Blue; Off Minor; Epistrophy; Coming On The Hudson; Nutty; Tumalumah; Put Sunshine In It; Uptown Strut; Silhouette; #5; Sentimental Walk (Theme from "Diva")

Personnel: Arthur Blythe: alto saxophone; Bobby Battle: drums; Kelvyn Bell: guitar; Bob Stewart: tuba; Abdul Wadud: cello; Leon 'Ndugu' Chancelor: drums; Alphonso Johnson: bass, electric stick, bass pedal synth; Todd Cochran: synthesizer, Rhodes, keyboards, computer drums, synth bass; Michael O'Neill: guitar; Bruce Purse: OB8; Paulinho da Costa: percussion; Gerry Brown: drums; Stanley Clarke: bass.

Da-Da/Basic Blythe

Tracks: CD1: Odessa; Splain Thing; Esquinas (Corners); Crescent; Break Tune; After Paris. CD2: Autumn In New York (Part One); Lenox Avenue Breakdown; Heart To Heart; As Of Yet; Ruby My Dear; Faceless Woman; Autumn In New York (Part Two).

Personnel: Arthur Blythe: alto saxophone; Olu Dara: cornet; Cecil McBee: bass; John Hicks: piano; Bobby Battle: drums; Vincent Henry: bass, keyboards, guitar; Bob Stewart: electric tuba, special effects ; Bruce Purse: keyboards; Geri Allen: keyboards; Barnard Davis: drum program; Eric Rehl: synthesizer programmer; Gail Dixon & Akua Dixon: strings; Kelvyn Bell: guitar; Anthony Cox: David Nadien: violin; Jan Mullen: violin; Sanford Allen: violin; Paul Peabody: violin; Theodore Israel: viola; Jesse Levine: viola; Richard Locker: cello; Fred Zlotkin: cello.

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