Back to Black (Arthur)

Arthur Blythe
Columbia : 1980

AB, alto sax; James Blood Ulmer, guitar; Bob Stewart, tuba; Abdul Wadud, cello; Bobby Battle, drums.

How in the world are we just now getting to our first proper Arthur Blythe post? All too typical, perhaps, of the way-too-low profile of this overlooked alto hero.

Illusions comes on the heels of 1979’s superb and nastily funky Lenox Avenue Breakdownstill in print — and while it doesn’t quite scale those heights, it’s still a remarkably strong outing, highlighted by fluid playing, sinuous grooves, James “Blood” Ulmer’s spiky guitar lines, and a tuba that just won’t quit.

Signed by Columbia in the late 1970s and initially touted to the stars (“perhaps the most innovative musician ever to put alto sax to his lips” – !!!), Blythe’s output at the time offers a path not taken for jazz. His music was adventurous but accessible, ready for a prime time audience. If the label had been able to break Blythe big, we might have avoided the stultifying regime of Wynton Marsalis and those toothless Young Lions. Or at least they wouldn’t have seemed like the only game in town. In an alternate 1980s, the crowd (and major labels) follow notables like Blythe, David Murray, and Henry Threadgill and help to nurture a younger, hipper, and more vibrant fan base for the music. But then it was the Reagan Years and those progressive moves just weren’t in the cards.

Here’s Gary Giddins writing about Blythe in 1979: “If Columbia can tap Blythe’s potential audience, [Lenox Avenue Breakdown] could be the wedge with which other loft veterans break through to larger audiences.” Uh-huh. Let the record show that the wedge was instead a very thin reed. However, to paraphrase MLK, the arc of musical history may be long, but it bends toward the good shit.

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