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Arthur Blythe: Lenox Avenue Breakdown / In The Tradition / Illusions / Blythe Spirit

Jakob Baekgaard By

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Jazz-reissues are important because they help to write and rewrite jazz-history. Through reissues, the prominence of an artist is maintained and the canon is confirmed, but it can also be questioned and corrected. A double-disc from the excellent reissue label, BGO, brings four key records from leader and alto saxophonist, Arthur Blythe, back into circulation. The records, all released on Columbia, are: Lenox Avenue Breakdown (1979), In The Tradition (1980), Illusions (1980) and Blythe Spirit (1981).

The albums all show a fully formed musical personality that navigates in the space between tradition and experiment, mainstream and avant-garde. As a musician, Blythe can be both swinging, funky and tender, but his tone has an edge, there is no butter, and one is reminded just how good the horn is at communicating human feelings. The four albums show different facets of Blythe's artistry, but a reoccurring motif is the prevalence of a strong rhythmical undercurrent combined with multiple melodic patterns and an interest in rich and unusual instrumentation. This is already shown on Lenox Avenue Breakdown, which combines the varied textures of alto saxophone, tuba, flute, bass, drums, percussion and guitar. The result is a rhythmically vibrant report from the city jungle on four extended compositions that burst with life and contrapuntal delight.

In The Tradition is the most conventional of the four releases, but still a thing of beauty. Together with pianist Stanley Cowell, bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall, Blythe explores a repertoire that spans stride, swing and modern jazz, including compositions by Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, whose "Naima" gets a poignant reading.

Illusions returns to the experimental funky sound of Lenox Avenue Breakdown and once again includes guitarist James Blood Ulmer's swampy guitar riffs, but the album also incorporates acoustic piano. "Bush Baby" is a hypnotic, electric workout based on a repeated figure, but "Miss Nancy" is a more loosely swinging piece with some complicated breaks that throw a bit of modernistic frolic into the mix. The addition of cellist Abdul Wadud once again shows Blythe's interest in expanding his palette of sound.

Whereas Illusions consisted of all original compositions, Blythe Spirit has a more direct dialogue with the past and it is fascinating to hear the difference between Wadud's cello playing on "Contemplation" and Gershwin's classic "Strike Up The Band." However, it is not a difference between old and new, but rather the past moving into the present. Blythe is an exemplary musician in the sense that he doesn't put jazz tradition into a dusty museum where it has to be admired at a distance. Instead, he has a playful and modernistic approach, but he is not afraid of reaching into the emotional core of "Misty," playing with raw emotional elegance.

Simply put, these four albums show Blythe at the top of his game. His ability to navigate between mainstream and avant-garde is inspiring and shows a path in jazz that is worth following today. The BGO-package includes all the original liner notes and an essay by Charles Waring. However, all the albums are recorded in the studio. A fine supplement to this stellar release would be the album Live at Yoshi that includes live readings of many of the compositions found in the package. The album is only available as a download from Blythe's own website and all the money go to support the saxophonist's fight against Parkinson's disease.

Track Listing: CD1: Down San Diego Way; Lenox Avenue Breakdown; Slidin’ Through; Odessa; Jitterbug Waltz; In A Sentimental Mood; Break Tune; Caravan; Hip Dripper; Naima. CD2: Bush Baby; Miss Nancy; Illusions; My Son Ra; Carespin’ With Mamie; As Of Yet; Contemplation; Faceless Woman; Reverence; Strike Up The Band; Misty; Spirits In The Field; Just A Closer Walk With Thee.

Personnel: Personnel: Arthur Blythe: alto saxophone; James Newton: flute; James “Blood” Ulmer: guitar; Bob Stewart: tuba; Cecil McBee: bass; Jack DeJohnette: drums; Guilherme Franco: percussion; Stanley Cowell: piano; Fred Hopkins: bass; Steve McCall: drums; John Hicks: piano; Abdul Wadud: cello; Bobby Battle: drums; Kelvyn Bell: electric guitar; Amina Claudine Myers: organ.

Title: Lenox Avenue Breakdown / In The Tradition / Illusions / Blythe Spirit | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: BGO Records

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