Black Arthur's Return

Arthur Blythe's Western Wind, Part II

The new one, aptly titled Focus (Savant), does. This album is so utterly and persuasively sui generis that it should spark a reassessment of Blythe, much of whose work for Columbia isn't even in print. Martin Williams once wrote of a Sonny Rollins classic that it was the kind of jazz you could play for your uncle, which made sense in the 1950s. This is one you could play for your nephew. At 62, Blythe has found an ideal setting for his lusty, swelling, sometimes caustic music: a quartet that bounces on the beat of Bob Stewart's tuba, nourished by the harmonies of Tsilis's concert grand marimba. No less remarkable is the drumming of producer Cecil Brooks III, which eschews detached timekeeping in favor of lockstep patterns that define the tunes in unison with the saxophone. Blythe deploys the quartet cannily, spelling it with duos and trios, and there isn't a dull or wasted moment.

For all the concision and variety, the album's most affecting attribute is the leader's sound, still plump, still bolstered with vibrato in the middle and lower registers. Yet the bright-eyed glow is dimmed, seasoned with a greater sense of life lived. His strongest work—and there is no indifferent playing here—is imbued with a paternal warmth that strengthens his rhythmic assurance. Every remake is triumphant. A new version of "In a Sentimental Mood" has enormous integrity and personal impact, where the original now appears relatively forced and showy. The engaging "Night Song" is rendered here with a sexy candor that defines it. And while it's difficult to choose between treatments of "My Sun Ra" (though the one on Illusions is an instance of Jolson-esque excesses), this one derives unique opulence from the way the quartet is maneuvered.

A paternal warmth
photo: R. Andrews Lepley
A paternal warmth

The album begins with its most dilatory jaunt, "Opus," in 12/8, a meter that, as drawn by Stewart's vamp, waddles through its eight-bar phrases—Blythe's solo is particularly spare compared to the virtual percussion choir created by marimba, tuba, and drums. Pleasant but emotionally reticent, it's a warm-up for what follows. Blythe assigns the composer credit for "Children's Song" to Monk, who recorded it in 1964 as "That Old Man." It's really the p.d. ditty "This Old Man," which Monk altered melodically and essayed with dashing humor. Blythe turns it into a boldly expressive memory piece, with Stewart's tuba evoking arco bass and Blythe's solo resourcefully elaborating theme and mood. By contrast, he growls on the backbeat blues "C.C. Rider," clearly relishing the fun. At the close of his solo, Brooks extends his turnback into a drum solo with tuba support, scrupulously maintaining the rigor and feeling. On another blues, "Night Creeper," Blythe airs his affection for Johnny Hodges and Earl Bostic. This is irresistible stuff, but even the freer pieces benefit from a pellucid attack—notably a meditative duet with Tsilis on "Once Again." A more extensive duet with Stewart, "Hip Toe," is extraordinary—Blythe's rippling solo begins as a lexicon of his patented phrases, but in the second half he takes a favorite Parker lick (it's the first figure in his second ad lib chorus on the 1945 "Now's the Time") and treats it as a motif, swinging blissfully. Throughout Focus, Blythe plays as though he means every note, his unspotted timbre conveying the same buoyant individuality that powered his initial volley on New York. Blow, Western wind, blow.

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