ARTHUR BLYTHE-LENNOX AVENUE BREAKDOWN, IN THE TRADITION, ILLUSIONS AND BLYTHE SPIRIT.
ARTHUR BLYTHE-LENNOX AVENUE BREAKDOWN, IN THE TRADITION, ILLUSIONS AND BLYTHE SPIRIT.
Prodigy is an often overused word. It’s used to describe young children who show a modicum of talent in sport and music. Sadly, and all too often, those that are described as a prodigy never fulfil their supposed potential. The young ball player ends up parking cars, and the prodigious violinist pumping gas. However, there are some prodigies who fulfil their potential, including alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe.
He was born in Los Angeles on July 5th 1940. When he was nine, Arthur Blythe discovered the alto saxophone. Soon, he was taking lessons with a family friend, and saxophonist Junior Foster. He taught Arthur Blythe, and watched as he progressed from elementary school orchestra to the marching band. Within a few years, Arthur Blythe’s life would change, when he discovered jazz in his mid-teens. This was a game-changer.
Previously, Arthur Blythe loved R&B. That was his music. Then he discovered jazz. Arthur Blythe was then taught by Kirkland Bradford, who had played in Jimmie Lunceford’s swing band. However, it wasn’t swing that Arthur Blythe gravitated towards.
Instead, it was Thelonius Monk and then John Coltrane. It was only later, that Arthur Blythe discovered one of the greatest saxophonists, Charlie Parker. By then, Arthur Blythe lived and breathed jazz. He had discovered his purpose in life, and that was playing jazz saxophone.
While this is usually a dream for most young musicians, Arthur Blythe lived this dream; first as sideman and then as a solo artist. His solo career began in 1977, when Arthur Blythe signed to India Navigation. By 1978, Arthur Blythe had signed to a major Columbia, where he released Lenox Avenue Breakdown, In the Tradition, Illusions and Blythe Spirit. They have recently been reissued by BGO Records on a two disc set, and are the perfect introduction to Arthur Blythe. However, in the mid-sixties, Arthur Blythe was still finding has way as a musician.
By the mid-sixties, Arthur Blythe went in search of like-minded musicians. He found them at The Underground Musicians and Artists Association, which had been founded by pianist and composer Horace Tapscott. This was the perfect environment for an up-and-coming musician. Not only was Arthur Blythe surrounded by innovative and influential musicians, but it lead to him making his recording debut.
Horace Tapscott was looking for someone to play alto saxophone on his 1969 debut album and first album as bandleader, The Giant Is Awakened.Having gotten to know Arthur Blythe over the last few years, his friend from the Underground Musicians and Artists Association got the call. He was officially a member of the Horace Tapscott Quintet.
The Giant Is Awakened.
With Arthur Blythe onboard, the Horace Tapscott Quintet headed to the studio to meet producer Bob Thiele. He also owned Flying Dutchman Productions, the label the Quintet were signed to. It was an exciting time for everyone involved. Especially Arthur Blythe, who was making his recording debut; and Horace Tapscott who thought he was going to allowed to help mix the album. Before that, the album had to be recorde
Recording took place between the 1st and 3rd of April 1969. Over the three days, the Quintet recorded four Horace Tapscott compositions with producer Bob Thiele. The veteran producer had worked with some of the biggest names in jazz, and was the perfect person to coax and cajole the best performance from the nascent Quintet. He certainly brought out the best in Arthur Blythe, whose performances were being committed to tape for the first time. Once the sessions were over, it should’ve been a time to celebrate.
Alas, the celebrations were cut short when it became clear that Horace Tapscott wasn’t going to be involved in mixing The Giant Is Awakened. Horace Tapscott wasn’t pleased. For Horace Tapscott who was already suspicious of the music industry, this was enough for him to turn his back on the recording industry for ten years. This was ironic.
When The Giant Is Awakened was released later in 1969, it was to widespread critical acclaim. Sadly the Horace Tapscott Quintet would never released another album. However, Arthur Blythe had enjoyed recording The Giant Is Awakened, and was keen to repeat the experience.
Three years later, in 1972, Arthur Blythe returned to the studio. This time, it was with Julius Hemphill on his album Coon Bid’ness. It was an ambitious and innovative album where avant-garde and jazz combine. When it was released later in 1972, it was to critical acclaim. For the second time, Arthur Blythe had played an important part in the success of an album.
In 1974, two became three when Arthur Blythe joined Azar Lawrence for the recording of what was, a truly groundbreaking album of spiritual jazz, Bridge Into The New Age. Arthur Blythe didn’t seem of place alongside Azar Lawrence, Woody Shaw and Hadley Caliman. Despite this, Arthur Blythe’s career took an unexpected twist.
Just like many jazz musicians, Arthur Blythe had headed to New York, which was then, regarded as the American jazz capital.By the mix-seventies, was struggling to make a career out of music. Competition was fierce, and Arthur Blythe had no option but to take a job as a security guard. This was only temporary. Fortunately, he was soon hired by avant-garde vocalist Lean Thomas.
He was establishing a reputation as a leading light of avant-garde scene. Leon Thomas had also recently worked with a man from Arthur Blythe’s past, Bob Thiele. Their paths would cross again. That was in the future. Arthur Blythe was part of Leon Thomas’ band, and that was where he was ‘spotted’ by one of the biggest names in jazz, Chico Hamilton.
He played on Chico Hamilton’s 1975 album for Blue Note, Peregrinations, and the 1976 followup Chico Hamilton and The Players. Right through to 1977, Arthur Blythe played alongside Chico Hamilton. However, by 1977, his talents were in demand.
In 1976, Gil Evans Orchestra were looking for an alto saxophonist. Arthur Blythe answered the call, and would spend several years working with the Gil Evans Orchestra. When he was neither working with Chico Hamilton nor the Gil Evans Orchestra, worked with a variety of jazz musicians.
This included recording an album with Woody Shaw in 1977, This was The Iron Men, which featured Anthony Braxton. However, The Iron Men wasn’t released until 1980. By then, Arthur Blythe had embarked upon a solo career.
Arthur Blythe solo career began in early 1977, when having signed to the indie label India Navigation, he recorded his debut album The Grip on February 26, 1977. Unlike most debut albums, The Grip was a live album which was recorded at the Brook, in New York.
The Grip was an ambitious and adventurous album of free jazz. That was no surprise, as Arthur Blythe had put together a band that featured some of the most creative, free spirits on the New York jazz scene. Drummer Steve Reid provided the heartbeat, while Bob Stewart on tuba, trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah, cellist Abdul Wadud and percussionist Muhamad Abdullah joined Arthur Blythe. They were responsible for a debut album that won over critics.
When The Grip was released later in 1977, praise and plaudits accompanied the release of a truly groundbreaking album. Arthur Blythe’s band went further than any of his contemporaries. Critics were enthralled by such ambitious and adventurous album. What was all the more remarkable was that it was a live album. There were no second chances. That was the case with the other live album recorded on 26th February 1977.
The same night that The Grip was recorded at The Brook, the tapes were left running and a second live album was recorded, Metamorphosis. It was also released later in 1977, and just like The Grip, Metamorphosis, was an album that found favour with critics. They were impressed by Arthur Blythe’s distinctive and unique sound, as he and his band of musical free spirits took the listener on an another musical adventure. For critics and the record buyers who discovered Metamorphosis, it was a tantalising taste of what was to come from Arthur Blythe.
Despite having recorded and released two live albums early in 1977, Arthur Blythe wasn’t willing to rest on his laurels. Instead, he featured on Synthesis’ debut album Six By Six. Then he signed a contract with the Adelphi label, and headed into the studio in December 1977.
For his first studio album, Arthur Blythe four new compositions, They would be recorded by a trio. This featured Bob Stewart on tuba and Ahkmed Abdullah on congas. Sitting atop the arrangement was the unmistakable sound of Arthur Blythe’s alto saxophone. With the four compositions recorded, Bush Baby was released in 1978.
Before the release of Bush Baby, critics had their say on the album. Just like his two live albums, critics remarked upon Arthur Blythe’s adventurous spirit. They also remarked that already, Arthur Blythe was a versatile musician. He could seamlessly switch between playing soulfully, to playing with an unbridled intensity. Critics were won over by Bush Baby which was released in early 1978. Equally impressed by Arthur Blythe, were Columbia Records, who signed him in 1987. This was the start of a new era.
In The Tradition.
Having signed to Columbia Records, Arthur Blythe got the opportunity to renew his acquaintance with producer Bob Thiele. He was drafted in to produce Arthur Blythe’s Columbia Records’ debut, In The Tradition.
For In The Tradition, Arthur Blythe composed Break Tune and Hip Dripper. The rest of the tracks were cover versions, which took Arthur Blythe back to his teenage years. Fats Wallers’ Jitterbug Waltz had been a favourite, when R&B was Arthur Blythe’s passion. The other songs included a cover of Duke Ellington’s In A Sentimental Mood, and Caravan, which the Duke penned with Irving Mills and Juan Tizol. However, the album closer was Naima, which was written by one of the artists who inspired Arthur Blythe, John Coltrane. These six tracks were recorded at Mediasound Studios, in New York.
At Mediasound Studios, the free spirits that played on Arthur Blythe’s first three albums were absent. Replacing them, were a rhythm section of drummer Steve McCall and bassist Fred Hopkins. Completing Arthur Blythe’s quartet were pianist Stanley Cowell. Once In The Tradition was complete, Bob Thiele didn’t make the same mistake twice.
Not only did Bob Thiele co-produce In The Tradition with Arthur Blythe, but he allowed him play a part in the mixing of the album. He must have remembered the confusion surrounding the Horace Tapscott Qunintet’s The Giant Is Awakened. So, Arthur Blythe mixed In The Tradition with Doug Epstein. Then later in 1978, Arthur Blythe’s Columbia debut was released.
Critics were in for a surprise when they heard In The Tradition. This time, there were neither sonic experiments, nor musical adventures from Arthur Blythe. Instead, as the title suggested, the album had a much more traditional sound. The quartet embraced and enjoyed this return to a more traditional sound. It allowed the quartet to showcase their considerable skills. This was something critics remarked upon, praising and lauding the standard of musicianship on display on In The Tradition.
Especially on standards like In A Sentimental Mood and Caravan. Then on Naima, Arthur Blythe pays homage to Trane. He also showcases his skill as a composer and musician on Break Tune and Hip Dripper. When In The Tradition was released later in 1979, it was to critical acclaim.
The only disappointment was that In The Tradition didn’t chart in the US Billboard 200. However, it found an audience within the jazz community, who wondered what direction Arthur Blythe was heading next?
Lenox Avenue Breakdown.
1978 was one of the busiest years of Arthur Blythe’s career so far. Away from own his recording career, Arthur Blythe still worked as a sideman. He headed out on tour with Gil Evans, and recorded two live albums on the night of February 25th 1978. The first was Gil Evans Live at the Royal Festival Hall London, which wasn’t released until 1979. That same night, The Rest of Gil Evans Live at the Royal Festival Hall London 1978 was recorded. However, it wasn’t released until 1981. Two months later, and Arthur Blythe was back in the recording studio.
He played on two albums by Lester Bowie, The 5th Power and African Children. They were recorded between April 12th and 17th 1978. However, Arthur Blythe wasn’t finished working as sideman yet.
Arthur Blythe returned to Mediasound Studios later in 1978, with four new compositions. They would become Lenox Avenue Breakdown, which featured an expanded lineup of Arthur Blythe’s band.
This time around, Arthur Blythe was working with a septet, which featured some top jazz musicians. The rhythm section alone featured drummer Jack DeJohnette, bassist Cecil McBee and guitarist James Blood Ulmer. They were augmented by the familiar face of Bob Stewart on tuba, flautist James Newton and percussionist Guilherme Franco. Producing this all-star lineup, was a man used to big occasions, Bob Thiele. He coaxed and cajoled a masterful performance out of the septet. It was worth every ounce of effort and energy that had been expounded. After this, it was over to Arthur Blythe to mix Lenox Avenue Breakdown. Then Arthur Blythe’s Magus Opus was almost ready for release.
Before that, critics had their say on Lenox Avenue Breakdown. Critics thought the band had been together for years. However, they were a new band, and had been together just a week when Bob Thiele pressed play. He watched as the septet delivered a masterful performance on an album of innovative and influential contemporary jazz.
Bob Stewart the longest serving member of Arthur Blythe’s band, played an important part on Lenox Avenue Breakdown. Especially on the title-track, a thirteen minute epic, where he delivered what’s considered one of the finest tuba solos in modern jazz. That’s just one reason why Lenox Avenue Breakdown is the album’s centrepiece. However, the new band all play their part on album that critics exhausted superlatives on.
It was variously hailed a masterpiece and a modern classic. In a later review, The Penguin Guide To Jazz said: “one of the lost masterpieces of modern jazz.” Sadly, that was the case.
When Lenox Avenue Breakdown was released in 1979, the album never troubled the US Billboard 200. Even in the US Billboard Jazz Albums Charts, Lenox Avenue Breakdown reached just thirty-five. Arthur Blythe’s Magnus Opus, was indeed: “one of the lost masterpieces of modern jazz.” The next time Arthur Blythe stepped into a studio would be to play on an album by one the band that played on Lennox Avenue Breakdown.
This was Jack DeJohnette, who was about to record a new album Special Edition. Arthur Blythe spent part of February rehearsing and recording Special Edition. However, by the time Special Edition was released in 1980, the same year Arthur Blythe released third album for Columbia. That was still to come. Arthur Blythe was working on various projects
This included recording a new album with Gil Evans in July 1979. To do this, he had to catch a flight to Rome. That was where Gil Evans was going to record his next album.
On July 29th 1979 at Trafalgar Studios, Rome Arthur Blythe was part of Gil Evans’ band that recorded the double album Parabola. However, the next time Arthur Blythe was with Synthesis.
Two years had passed since the released their debut album Six By Six. When it came time to record Segments in 1979, Arthur Blythe got the call. Having recorded the album with Synthesis, Arthur Blythe, got the opportunity to accompany another jazz great, McCoy Tyner.
Playing in McCoy Tyner’s band kept Arthur Blythe busy for the rest of 1979, and into early 1980. McCoy Tyner was about to record a double album with a quartet, and wanted Arthur Blythe to feature on it. Seven musicians would feature on the eleven tracks that became Quartets 4×4.
Recording of Quartets began at Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey on March 3rd. This was the day that that Arthur Blythe was needed. He recorded Blues in the Minor, Stay As Sweet As You Are and It’s You Or No One, and that was his part complete. Now his thoughts could turn to his solo carer, his third Columbia album Illusions.
Having spent 1979 and early 1980 working as a sideman, this allowed Arthur Blythe to get over the commercial failure of Lenox Avenue Breakdown. Arthur Blythe must have known it was the best album of his career. Critics had called it a masterpiece and a classic. Now he had it all to do again, in the hope that commercial success wouldn’t continue to elude him. So Arthur Blythe returned to the studio in April 1980.
When recording Illusions began, the changes had been rung, Rather than Mediasound Studios, Illusions was being recorded at CBS Recording Studios, New York. Producing the album, was Arthur Blythe and Jim Fishel. There was no sign of Bob Thiele, nor the septet that featured on Lenox Avenue Breakdown.
While it was still a septet that featured on Illusions, this time there were several new faces. Even two different drummer were used on the album, each playing on three tracks. This meant the rhythm section featured drummers Steve McCall and Bobby Battle, bassist Fred Hopkins and guitarist James Blood Ulmer. Tubaist Bob Stewart returned, and was joined by cellist Abdul Wadud who had featured on Arthur Blythe’s first two albums. Completing the lineup was pianist John Hicks. They spent much of April and May recording Illusions. Once it was complete, critics were in for a surprise.
On Illusions, critics realised, that Arthur Blythe had used two different quartets. Musicians were swapped in and out, depending on the track. The result was an album of innovative and inventive jazz, where Arthur Blythe are at the peak of their powers. Arthur Blythe as a composer, bandleader and musician, was at his creative zenith, as he pushed musical boundaries to their limits, and sometimes, way beyond. It was a fitting followup to Lennox Avenue Meltdown, Arthur Blythe’s Magnus Opus. However, while the music on Illusions was innovative and inventive, Columbia would’ve preferred an album that appealed to a much wider audience.
When Illusions was released, just like Arthur Blythe’s two previous albums, it failed to trouble the US Billboard 200. To make matters worse, Illusions didn’t even match the success of Lennox Avenue Meltdown, which reached thirty-five in the US Billboard Jazz Album Charts. For Arthur Blythe, this was a huge disappointment.
Following the release of Illusions, Arthur Blythe returned to working as a sideman. Later in 1980, he played on Gil Evans’ album Live at the Public Theater Volume 1 and 2. The other album Arthur Blythe played on, was John Fischer’s 1980 album 6 × 1 = 10 Duos for a New Decade. Working on such an ambitious album, must have given Arthur Blythe food for thought.
Arthur Blythe returned to CBS Recording Studios, in New York in 1981. This time around, Arthur Blythe had four new compositions, Contemplation, Faceless Woman, Reverence and Spirits in the Field. The other three tracks included George and Ira Gershwin’s Strike Up the Band; Johnny Burke and Erroll Garner’s Misty and a rework of the traditional gospel song Just a Closer Walk With Thee. These songs were recorded by a band that featured familiar faces and new names.
The rhythm section featured drummers Steve McCall and Bobby Battle, bassist Fred Hopkins and guitarist Kelvyn Bell. Tubaist Bob Stewart returned, and was joined by cellist Abdul Wadud and pianist John Hicks. Just like on Illusions, different musicians featured on the seven tracks. They would become Blythe Spirit, which produced by Jim Fishel and Arthur Blythe. It was a quite different album, from Arthur Blythe.
Critics realised this, when they received their advance copy of Blythe Spirit. Elements of avant-garde were combined with hard bop and R&B on Blythe Spirit Arthur Blythe. Some of the tracks featured a trio, while others featured quartet or quintet. They were responsible for tracks the veered between conventional like Misty, and a much more adventurous approach. Especially on the swinging take of Just A Closer Walk With Thee. Strike Up The Band was given an unlikely makeover, while the Arthur Blythe compositions are best described as genre-melting, and innovative. This resulted in an album that was well received by critics, but failed to find a wider audience.
Just like Illusions, Blythe Spirit failed to trouble the US Billboard 200. Illusions never even reached the US Billboard Jazz Album Charts. It was another disappointment for Arthur Blythe, and of course, Columbia.
They had placed their faith in Arthur Blythe, and gave him the freedom to release albums that featured ambitious, inventive and innovative. Sometimes it was almost experimental, as Arthur Blythe became a sonic explorer and took his music in unlikely directions on his four albums for Columbia.They’ve recently released by BGO Records as a two disc set, consisting of Lenox Avenue Breakdown, In the Tradition, Illusions and Blythe Spirit. This two disc set the highpoint of Arthur Blythe’s Columbia years.
His finest moment of his first four albums for Columbia was Lennox Avenue Breakdown, which was Arthur Blythe’s Magnus Opus. It was the best of the seven albums Arthur Blythe had released between 1977 and 1981.Lennox Avenue Breakdown was was an album that Arthur Blythe would struggle to surpass.
Illusions was a fitting followup to Lennox Avenue Breakdown, and came close to reaching the heights of Arthur Blythe’s finest hour. However, Arthur Blythe’s Columbia debut, In The Tradition, features a much more conventional sound. However, Blythe Spirit the Arthur Blythe’s fourth for Columbia, was a genre-melting album where avant-garde, post bop and R&B were combined. This might seem like an unlikely fusion, but it was a veritable musical feast that showed yet another side to Arthur Blythe. He switched between a trio, quartet and quintet, unleashing conventional, ambitious and even swinging, rousing music. This was a captivating way to end the first part of the Columbia years.
Having released four albums for Columbia, Arthur Blythe would released another five albums between 1982 and 1987. During that period, Arthur Blythe continued to work as a sideman. This is something he had done between 1978s In The Tradition and 1981s Blythe Spirit. There’s every possibility that working with some of the biggest names in jazz inspired Arthur Blythe, and played a part in the direction his music took.
It certainly took a few twists and turns, as the onetime prodigy Arthur Blythe’s first four albums contained some of the best, and most ambitious, creative, influential, innovative and inventive music of a solo career that’s spanned four decades. Sadly, despite enjoying such longevity, Arthur Blythe is still one of jazz music’s best kept secrets.
Maybe BGO Records’ reissue of Arthur Blythe’s first four Columbia albums, will result in his music being rediscovered by a wider audience, who will appreciate, embrace and enjoy albums like Lenox Avenue Breakdown, In the Tradition, Illusions and Blythe Spirit?
ARTHUR BLYTHE-LENNOX AVENUE BREAKDOWN, IN THE TRADITION, ILLUSIONS AND BLYTHE SPIRIT.