Sunday, July 29, 2007

Overlooked musician - Arthur Blythe

When jazz musicians reach a certain age that's too old to be a young lion but not old enough to be a venerated master, they tend to slip between the cracks of a very competitive music scene that continually asks "what have you done for me lately?" Alto saxophonist and composer Arthur Blythe has done a lot during the course of his career, but you wouldn't know it by the few of his discs that remain in print today. He came bursting out of San Diego in the mid-1970's with a tart and citrus alto attack that checked Jackie McLean and Eric Dolphy, but was well on its way to its own unique form of expression. Blythe began recording as a leader for the small India Navigation label which set the tone for his music to follow using tuba and percussion in inventive ways. Much like his predecessor, Albert Ayler, Blythe reached back to the very beginnings of jazz and the music's future simultaneously. Offered an amazing opportunity with a recording contract with the historic major label Columbia, Blythe responded with what is considered his masterpiece, Lenox Avenue Breakdown. One of the mere handful of records given a "crown" in the exhaustive Penguin Guide to Jazz, Lenox was a wildly inventive mix of tart alto saxophone with James Newton's flute and James "Blood" Ulmer's guitar making for an unforgettable mix. The remainder of the recordings Blythe made for Columbia were mixed between electric jazz and traditional acoustic jazz. The albums were all good and thoughtful, but they received a diminishing amount of sales and Blythe's adventurous music fell out of favor with his label as they turned their attention to the neo-bop of the Marsalis brothers. Slipping into a role of a journeyman, Blythe began a very productive association with cellist David Eyges. They recorded as a duo under each others' leadership on a few occasions and the sound of the two instruments improvising together is beguiling. More recently, Blythe has moved back to his hometown of San Diego and has made several records for the Savant label. Once again, he employs Bob Stewart on tuba which gives the music a unique sound, and on the excellent Focus the sound of alto saxophone, tuba and the marimba of William Tsillis is enchanting. Blythe has been pretty quiet of late, still performing live occasionally but he hasn't released an album since 2003. Hopefully this will change soon as Arthur Blythe is one of the most inventive musicians of the post-bop era.

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