Arthur Blythe’s story may not make a movie, but it certainly works as jazz allegory. He came to New York from San Diego in the magical mid ’70s, and on his second night out sat in with Elvin Jones. Although he was critically neglected at home, at 34 he was hardly inexperienced—having studied with, among others, the 1940s Lunceford saxophonist Kirtland Bradford and bandleader Horace Tapscott, in whose groups he had played for a decade—and he came East complete with the attention-grabbing sobriquet Black Arthur Blythe. But far more impressive was his wholly original approach to timbre. He made the saxophone sound like no one else—round as Benny Carter, ardent as John Coltrane. Along with Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake, he put the alto back into contention. His hard- riffing, economical phrases were girded by a fast, edgy vibrato that at its best cut like a Ginsu and at its not-best vibrated with a whining nasality that suggested Al Jolson. The phrases, too, were original, punchy with a fastidious lyricism. When in 1975 he performed at a loft concert with the no less distinctive 20-year-old David Murray, it seemed as though Western winds were, at last, blasting jazz out of its long night in the doldrums.
Relocating his family to New York and supporting himself at times as a security guard, Blythe quickly emerged as a key mover of the loft era, when living-room performance spaces, art galleries, converted warehouses, and other venues welcomed a fresh, nervy new jazz. Neither avant-garde nor mainstream, it embodied a pragmatic rapprochement between the two—one that spurned meretricious fusion while pursuing the merger potential of harmolodic rock. Blythe typified the moment: He concurrently led bands with unconventional instrumentation (Bob Stewart’s tuba, Abdul Wadud’s cello), standard rhythm sections (a John Hicks piano trio), and electricity (James Blood Ulmer’s guitar). His presentations were far from typical. A meticulous man, he started his 8 p.m. sets at 8 p.m., and they were impeccably ordered—the selections succinct and pointed, the solos logically coherent, emotional but never self-indulgent. During the next few years, he joined Chico Hamilton’s band, worked often with Gil Evans, recorded with Lester Bowie, and cut his own LPs on the new indies, India Navigation and Adelphi.
By 1978, Columbia Records, which a few years before had jettisoned its jazz roster, began paying attention. Bruce Lundvall was at the helm, and Dexter Gordon’s “homecoming” proved a huge success. Blythe was signed as a token representative of the new generation. Lenox Avenue Breakdown, a triumphant disc with dance rhythms and radiant colors, has grown in stature. Yet back then, an over-the-top press campaign that compared Blythe with Charlie Parker guaranteed instant backlash. Tell the world you’ve signed a brilliant new saxophonist, and the world will say, “Good, let’s hear him.” Tell the world you’ve signed the Messiah, and it sharpens its knives. No one doubted that he could play, but for some the ripe, quavering tone was too much. Meanwhile, Blythe’s follow-up albums revealed increasing scope: jazz standards on In the Tradition, poignant originals and aggressively edgy funk on Illusions (Stewart, Wadud, and Ulmer in one band), the gamut from free improv to basic gospel on Blythe Spirit, the perfection of a novel septet on Elaborations, the homage to Monk on Light Blue. They sold the way jazz records sell, and the diversity probably didn’t help; everyone likes one track on Blythe Spirit, few like them all.
So, in 1984, the Lundvall regime gone, Columbia prevailed on Blythe to do a couple of frankly commercial albums—which failed to generate a new audience but succeeded in disillusioning the old one—before showing Charlie Parker’s heir the door. (According to his discography, a final and more characteristic Columbia album, Basic Blythe, with strings, came out in 1988, but I’ve never seen it and was unaware until now of its existence.) During the next few years, his visibility sharply decreased, despite appearances with the World Saxophone Quartet, the Leaders, and an underemployed quintet he co-led with Chico Freeman. Returning to San Diego, he did not issue an album of his own until the attractive if sorrowful 1991 Hipmotism (Enja), which extended his collaboration with Stewart, guitarist Kelvin Bell, and vibist Gust William Tsilis, a collaboration that began on Tsilis’s 1987 Pale Fire.
Though uneven, the sporadic Blythe albums issued since 1993 suggest a maturing in tone, style, and rhythm, especially evident in new versions of signature pieces. His blistering yet tempered duet with bassist Wilber Morris on “Jitterbug Waltz” (Live at the Bim, 1996, a round-robin trio collaboration with pianist John Fischer) obliterates the 1979 Columbia reading; his retarding and doubling of the beat brims with a masterly, almost offhand confidence. His slightly drier sound and easy wit are evident in a 1997 duet album with cellist David Eyges, Today’s Blues (CIMP)—the serene coherence of the unaccompanied “My Sun Ra,” the easy swing of “Warne Waltz.” If the live recordings, Retroflection (piano quartet, Enja) and the superior Spirits in the Field (tuba trio, Savant), fail to capture the concentration of his best playing, they do have moments of the boisterous resolve that also breaks through the overdetermined lyricism and awkwardness (an oddball “Blood Count”) of the calypso-influenced Night Song (Clarity). None of those albums makes a concerted statement.
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.
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.