From the late ’70s to the mid ’80s, Arthur Blythe blurred the lines between avant-garde and mainstream, simultaneously pursuing loft-scene polyphony, swinging postbop, and harmolodic fusion—and maintaining an improbably lengthy association with Columbia Records. Since then, Blythe’s stature has diminished, along with his huge and bracing alto saxophone sound. But a weeklong Blue Note engagement reaffirmed the wisdom of his inclusive vision.
Blythe began the late set on opening night with “Faceless Woman,” a noirish waltz from his Columbia years. Taking the first solo, he came across unhurried and almost methodical, emitting a few foghorn tones before sweeping into his upper register. The song’s languid tempo suited drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts and Hammond B-3 stalwart Dr. Lonnie Smith, both masters of polyrhythmic churn. It did less for guitarist James Blood Ulmer, who seemed relieved to hand the solo baton to guest tenor Dewey Redman. Reaching beyond harmony with beseeching, modulating cries, Redman delivered the tune’s emotional peak; filling the same slot a few nights later, Ravi Coltrane evinced equal passion but surrendered less control.
On both Tuesday and Friday, Blythe chose a repertoire studded with self-reference.Besides “Faceless Woman” there was the midtempo title track of his Columbia-era Elaboration, and one more from that album, the patently Monkish “Sister Daisy.” Blythe followed that with “another Monk tune,” guiding his “Light Blue” with Johnny Hodges lyricism. This lone standard further occasion-ed a teasingly suggestive Ulmer solo and some juicy statements from the bearded, turbaned Smith. But it was a backbeat number, the pre-Columbian “As of Yet,” that paid off biggest—twice provoking Blythe’s liveliest impro- visations, which are now more judicious than exclamatory. The tune’s jangly hook also provided Coltrane with protein for a ruminative solo packed with small surprises. Then Smith turned the same melodic scrap into a mantra, starting small and gradually building up to a runaway din of staccato blasts, upsweeping arcs, and rumbling undertow. Already the week’s MVP, Smith in that moment accomplished Blythe’s old ideal of a rootsy yet exploratory music that gets under the skin.