Arthur Blythe ‘Lennox Avenue Breakdown’ / ‘In The Tradition’ / ‘Illusions’ / ‘Blythe Spirit’ 2CD (BGO) 5/5

The first of the two double CD packages from BGO devoted to the Columbia recordings of the late Arthur Blythe between 1978 and 1981, these are by far the very best and, in the current absence of an over-arching anthology of his work, the first place of call to explore the alto saxophonist’s most accomplished work. Blythe arrived to much fanfare at Columbia after a brief stint with indie label India Navigation (who also recorded Pharoah Sanders at his most spiritual) and this was a major league line-up of musicians, reflecting the importance that Columbia placed on Blythe’s status within the world of jazz. A rhythm section to die for comprised bassist Cecil McBee, drummer Jack DeJohnette, with Guillermo Franco on percussion. What marked Blythe’s sound out was the absence of piano and instead guitarist James ‘Blood’ Ulmer adds a distinctive blues touch while the brass accompaniment was anything but conventional with Bob Stewart on tuba and James Newton on flute. Be that as it may, this collective worked and cooked up a storm with a sumptuous samba on ‘Down San Diego Way’, opening the album to a tumultuous start, and fine work between Blythe and Newton. The inclusion of Bob Thiele as co-producer with the leader undoubtedly contributed to the freshness of the sound and that is no better illustrated than on the title track. Sleeve notes by the one and only jazz writer and critic, Stanley Crouch, illustrate just what an important figure Blythe was considered at a pivotal time when jazz had endured a prolonged period in the doldrums, but was about to be on the up with the arrival of Wynton Marsalis, the resurrection of Miles Davis, and the reactivating of some of the key labels of the 1950s and 1960s with an extensive re-issue programme that would introduce seminal jazz recordings to a younger audience.

A follow up album, ‘In The Tradition’, was somewhat misleading and could just as easily have been re-titled in the plural since Blythe astutely realised that there were several traditions and that he could carve out his own niche by weaving in and out of these, which is precisely what he did do on the recording. A delightful duo between pianist Stanley Cowell and Blythe on Waller’s ‘Jitterbug Waltz’ reinvigorated the standard, while the self-composed ‘Hip Dripper’ was both catchy and soaked in the blues. Furthermore, the staccato rhythm of ‘Break Tune’ was anything but traditional in tone. A fast-paced interpretation of ‘Caravan’ features some lovely piano rolls from Cowell. More impressive of all, a complete reworking of Coltrane’s ‘Naima’, which receives a frenetic treatment with tension between the rhythm section throughout.

The second CD begins with ‘Illusions’ which is, in many respects, a summation of the first two Columbia recordings and includes separate line-ups with and without piano. If ‘Slidin’ Through’ represents the more reflective side to Blythe, then ‘My Son Ra’ is the most personal of compositions, not alluding to the great Sun Ra as one might have expected, but rather a tribute to Blythe’s own son, Rashied. Blythe cut two versions of this piece and this is the second. A final album here, ‘Blythe Spirit’, features some interesting choices of standard material such as a classy reading of Errol Garner’s ‘Misty’ that starts off slow, then develops into a mid-tempo number with Blythe soloing. As ever, Arthur Blythe was an extremely versatile performer and, as a whole, that is how one should view these wonderful recordings. Traditional gospel is illustrated on ‘Just A Closer Walk With Thee’ while even contemporary funk gets a brief look in on ‘Faceless Woman’. Highly recommended, terrific value and impeccable and extensive sleeve notes courtesy of Mojo writer Charles Waring, rightly situate Blythe in a wider historical context and his major contribution to the evolution of the alto saxophone post-Parker.

Tim Stenhouse