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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6 Responses to Back to Black (Arthur)

  1. Just thinking about Mr. Blythe a few days ago and had to listen to “Down San Diego Way.” Saw him play live a few times (with Lester B. once) and just loved his warm tones. On top of that, he is a gentle and friendly man. Thanks for sharing.

  2. The ‘Carespin’ track captures the particular sound that Blythe’s groups had. Seem to remember some great stuff on India Navigation if anyone can remember that far back: ‘As of Yet’, ‘My Son Ra’. Be good to know the full story of his time at Columbia – something started to go badly wrong after the Monk tribute album.

  3. The Bush Baby album had a couple of the same tunes as Illusions, but with different titles I’m too lazy to figure out which. Great album, especially side 2, just sax tuba and conga, and just 4 tracks so he gets to stretch out more. I think that was India Navigation, but I’m too lazy to google it. I think Bob Stewart is kind of like Blythe’s Charlie Haden, he helps a lot to make sense of Blythe’s conception, especially on that album. There are some cool youtubes that I’m too lazy to find of Blythe in the late nineties playing with Greg Kursten before he became the Bee, or is it the Bird? Me I think it’s the Bee. Seems more masculine.

  4. I remember all of the publicity Blythe got when he signed to Columbia in the late 70s. I think I first heard about him in a Time or Newsweek article. As a jazz newbie Illusions pretty well cleaned my ears out. The more I listened, the more I got it though. My local used vinyl store had all of the Columbias dirt cheap so I’ve been revisiting lately. The guitar/cello/tuba combo is such a great sound, and Blythe solos masterfully. It was tragic that Columbia pushed him in a smooth jazz direction. The run of Lennox Avenue/Illusions/Blythe Spirit/Elaborations/Light Blue still holds up.

  5. David, I guess this isn’t quite the “full story,” but just in case you haven’t seen it:

    FJ: Did Columbia pressure your direction?

    AB: I think they did. They made innuendoes, but I told them that I was staying stern on needing musical freedom. I was going to be conscious about giving them something that was positive and not something way out there or too far out there that wasn’t musical. I was going to give them something musical. So they let me do what I wanted to do. I guess they were looking for something that was a little bit different too. That is the way it came off.

    FJ: Did you have any inkling that Basic Blythe would be your last recording?

    AB: You know the strange thing about that, Fred. I haven’t received an eviction notice from them yet. They just evicted me and I had to sort of figure that out. It wasn’t a formal thing like they weren’t going to sign me again or they didn’t need my services anymore. They just backed off and let me figure it out. It was very weird. It turned me off. I just haven’t been able to get a major record company deal also, but I was also fed up with those large companies at the time. I am available now.

  6. I Lennox Avenue Breakdown is a classic album. I recently found this video of Arthur Blythe in Montreux in 1981. Blythe fans should check it out:

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