After what many considered a dry period in the early 1990s, Arthur Blythe gently began his return to alto prominence through exotic collaborations with cellist David Eyges and mallets player Gust William Tsilis. Focus presents one of his most unusual ensembles since the early '80s tuba/cello/guitar quintet. The sparse, foreign sound of this new quartet takes a moment to adjust to, but after a short distance into “Opus 1” (a Blythe original, not the old Sy Oliver chestnut) we are completely sucked in. Tsilis’s tinkly marimba carries the air of the Brazilian rainforest or African veldt but, within the full context of the album, manages to sound comfortably at home.
Two obscure Monk tunes, actually expansions of prior art, are assayed here. “Children’s Song,” a recasting of “This Old Man,” is taken slowly and decorated by Blythe’s signature wide vibrato. “Stuffy Turkey,” drawing heavily from Coleman Hawkins’ “Stuffy”, gets the Bourbon Street treatment; Stewart’s vigorous puffing sounds perfectly fitting, and Brooks is sufficiently flexible to negotiate all the different turns this multi-hued album takes.
Two duo tracks offer Blythe and friends a chance for more introspective action. “Once Again” is a mysterious duet for Blythe and Tsilis, their lines woven together like a rich textile. As the altoist matches wits with Stewart on “Hip Toe,” they fill in the numerous spaces nicely with spontaneous phrases and thoughtful responses.
Only Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood” flounders, and significantly so. Blythe’s intonation is quite unsteady at times, and Tsilis mostly noodles with a seeming lack of direction as if he were unfamiliar with the tune. However, Blythe quickly redeems things on the title piece, a too-short solo of impressive lyricism which brings a satisfying end to a most surprising experience. More evidence that Blythe still has plenty of good, creative notions within his expansive mind.