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Arthur Blythe

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Blythe recorded a lot of albums for CBS in the late '70s and '80s. I have Lenox Avenue Breakdown, which I like a lot; however, most of the others have not (I think) been reissued. For those who have heard this material, how is it? Mosaic-worthy?

Also, there seems to have been a lot of enthusiasm for Blythe during this period--Giddins has an article from the '80s entitled Blythe-mania--- almost as though Blythe was pointing the way forward for a jazz resurgence. An accessible avant-garde. What happened?

This period of jazz (in the '80s) interests me, it seems to have been pivotal in some way. As a college student in the '80s, I was pretty unaware of jazz, now I'm wondering what I missed.

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I loved Blythe's albums in the 80's, but I think a certain period of high creativity and solid accomplishment started in 1978 with "In the Tradition," an acoustic quartet with Stanley Cowell, Fred Hopkins, and Steve McCall (John Hicks soon replaced Cowell). Also in 1978 was "Lenox Avenue Breakdown," which at the time was a very fresh, hip, exciting new thing. "Illusions" in 1980 was half the acoustic quartet with Hicks, and half the "cello-guitar-tuba" band. "Blythe Spirit" in 1981 also a mix of groups, also including "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" with Amina Claudine Myers. "Elaborations" in 1982 featured the cello-guitar-tuba band, and so did the Monk tribute "Light Blue" in 1983. That series, from "In the Tradition" through "Light Blue," is well worth a Mosaic. Some of the best music of the 80's, IMHO.

In 1984, Blythe inexplicably followed this sterling series of albums with the discoid, pseudo-funky "Put Sunshine In It," a collaboration with one Todd Cochran on personality-free synthesizers and beat boxes. I read an interview with Blythe in which he denied that he made this under pressure from Columbia. It was just something he felt like doing, he said. Despite the record's virtually total lack of compelling content--it really was awful--I actually enjoyed listening to Blythe's gleaming phrasing in this marshmallow mess (sort of like listening to some of Paul Whiteman's most ponderous recordings for the chance to hear a few bars of Bix). Blythe could make any tune sound catchy. Unfortunately, this just about squandered all the reputation he had been building since 1978 among the larger jazz audience at a time when "the tradition" was all the rage and Wynton M. was taking off into the stratosphere of institutional approval and major-label promotion. Blythe went on to continue to make excellent music, which he is still doing, but he was never again considered a leading figure, a chef de file. Up through 1984, all the jazz fans I knew were eager to buy anything new Arthur Blythe put out. After "Put Sunshine In It," all bets were off and he was viewed with some suspicion. A rotten shame.

Promising things were happening in those years. Blythe, David Murray's Ming, Jack DeJohnette and Special Edition, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Prime Time, Metheny's 80/81... I'm sure others will come up with more for this list.

Edited by Tom Storer

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Blythe recorded a lot of albums for CBS in the late '70s and '80s. I have Lenox Avenue Breakdown, which I like a lot; however, most of the others have not (I think) been reissued. For those who have heard this material, how is it? Mosaic-worthy?
Some of it, particularly the early stuff imo. In The Tradition was released shortly after Air Lore and was part and parcel of updating ragtime and Ellington standards. It was a working group with Stanley Cowell, Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall. The record was very good but Blythe's alto was strangely recorded on some cuts, particularly "The Jitterbug Waltz", where he almost sounded like a soprano. Maybe it was a deliberate recording thing to try and get a period-piece lo-fi type sound but it irritated me and other listeners.

That was followed by Illusions which I think has been re-released on Koch. This began his practice of having two groups appearing on his recordings: The previously mentioned quartet with John Hicks replacing Cowell, and one featuring Blood Ulmer, Abdul Wadud, Bob Stewart (who appeared with him on earlier India Navigation and Adelphi releases) and Bobby Battle. This was also very good imo. Then came Blythe Spirit with the same dual group breakdown (except Kelvyn Bell replaced Ulmer) and one cut with Stewart and Amina Claudine Myers on organ doing "Just A Closer Walk With Thee". The next one was Elaboration and featured the Bell/Wadud/Stewart/Battle group and was good iirc (I haven't listened to it for a long time). Probably those four are Mosaic-worthy imo.

The next one was a Monk retrospective which didn't strike me as particularly inspired, particularly considering it came out at a time when everybody was doing them. Then came Put Sunshine In It which was absolutely horrible and should never be released again. I'm not even sure who was on it but it was uninspired drum-machine garbage of the worst order. A total embarrassment. On Da-Da he got some better players back (Hicks, Battle, Stewart, Dara & McBee) but I never heard this because I'd lost interest. Basic Blythe was ok with Anthony Cox joining Hicks and Battle but the strings on it don't work very well at all.

Also, there seems to have been a lot of enthusiasm for Blythe during this period--Giddins has an article from the '80s entitled Blythe-mania--- almost as though Blythe was pointing the way forward for a jazz resurgence. An accessible avant-garde. What happened?
imo, Blythe ran out of song ideas. Even during his Columbia years he was re-recording songs that were released earlier. That has carried through to post-Columbia period; Spirits in the Field is made up of old material being redone; I like it and he plays with gusto and verve but that can only be sustained for so long. I was surprised the robber barons at Columbia stuck with him as long as they did since they shitcanned Threadgill's Society Situation Dance Band concept and dropped Murray after Ming's Samba which was a very good disc. Edited by Captain Hate

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The '80s were the only period during my lifetime when there was a world-class jazz club in the city where I live (actually, the nearby city of Fort Worth). So that was actually the period when I was able to see the most live jazz. Arthur Blythe played there around 1984 or so, with a traditional instrumentation type of quartet--quite excellent (Faceless Woman, I still recall). I saw so much great music during that period--Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society played four separate three nights each engagements--some of my favorite electric jazz. Ornette and Prime Time played there four or five times (two or three nights each time)--Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition played there three or four times. David Murray brought in his Octet, with Julius Hemphill. Horace Silver, Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner many times, David Newman many times, James Blood Ulmer's Odyssey group, several times, Frank Morgan, Tony Williams, Benny Carter, Freddie Hubbard in peak form fronting a quartet on several occasions, Dewey Redman, Sonny Rollins, the Moffett Family Jazz Band, Art Blakey, etc. Those were the days!

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Thank you for all of the comments, very interesting. Glad to hear a lot of this music holds up well. This seems like a fascinating period in jazz, with the fusion/funk backlash, emergence of the neo classicists, and the folks like Blythe, Murray, Hemphill etc moving the music in different directions. All these streams converging

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Da Da had some excellent straight ahead cuts, and then a few insipid commercialized ones, which were jarring and completely out of character with the rest of the album. I thought at the time that the record company had to be dictating these commercialized recordings.

Blythe was thought of as a up and coming major figure in the first half of the 1980s. I have always seen him as a Jaki Byard type of jazz artist, a great player who somehow never broke through to stardom at the level that his talents deserved.

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In The Tradition was released shortly after Air Lore and was part and parcel of updating ragtime and Ellington standards. It was a working group with Stanley Cowell, Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall. The record was very good but Blythe's alto was strangely recorded on some cuts, particularly "The Jitterbug Waltz", where he almost sounded like a soprano. Maybe it was a deliberate recording thing to try and get a period-piece lo-fi type sound but it irritated me and other listeners.

Yeah, the sound was weird on that record. Sort of strangulated and nasal. But what playing! I don't see much similarity with Air Lore or other "updatings," to me it was just real swinging but spontaneous and of-its-moment straight-ahead jazz by musicians with strong personality. There really wasn't the slightest hint of "avant-garde" about it, unlike the Air record. One of the cool things about Blythe is how he is so much "of the tradition."

The next one was a Monk retrospective which didn't strike me as particularly inspired, particularly considering it came out at a time when everybody was doing them.

Oh, I loved that one. One thing I loved was the contrast with all the other Monk tributes that were coming out! No risk of trying to copy-cat Monk with a unique instrumentation like that. Alto, guitar, cello, tuba, drums doing Monk tunes. I dearly wish it had made it to CD. Fuck Columbia.

I saw that band a few times, once without the guitar, and they were fantastic live. Although Bobby Battle didn't really hold a candle to Steve McCall.

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I saw that band a few times, once without the guitar, and they were fantastic live. Although Bobby Battle didn't really hold a candle to Steve McCall.
The only time I saw Blythe with his own group (I saw him as part of the Leaders elsewhere) was with Stewart and Battle. Battle was quite the basher, lacking a lot of the subtle aspects of McCall, but he was fine that night. It's really sad that Battle, along with Hopkins, McCall and Hicks are no longer with us. Unfortunately I never got a chance to see McCall play.

I was going to post earlier that I felt very fortunate to start listening to this type of music in the late 70s, because it seemed like it was a particularly fertile period for Black Saint/Soul Note, so much so that you could pick up any lp (their pressings were flawless, which used to be a big sticking point about vinyl to me) and almost be guaranteed of hearing something extremely innovative. And the groupings: Pullen/Rivers, Pullen/Moye, Pullen/Freeman/Hopkins/Battle, Brax/Roach, Murray/Weston.

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Thank you for all of the comments, very interesting. Glad to hear a lot of this music holds up well. This seems like a fascinating period in jazz, with the fusion/funk backlash, emergence of the neo classicists, and the folks like Blythe, Murray, Hemphill etc moving the music in different directions. All these streams converging

Don't forget Henry Threadgill.

Those guys like David Murray, Arthur Blythe, Julius Hemphill, and Threadgill definitely moved the music forward into unchartered territories.

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I liked Arthur Blythe's work on the two Joey Baron recordings "Down Home" and "We'll Soon Find Out." Great, great albums!

Bill Frisell - guitar

Arthur Blythe - saxophone

Ron Carter - bass

Joey Baron - drums

Edited by bluemonk

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Another album that doesn't get mentioned much is McCoy Tyner's "4 X 4." It has Arthur Blythe on it, Freddie Hubbard, John Abercrombie, Bobby Hutcherson, Al Foster, and Cecil McBee. Very good session.

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Blythe is also on one cut of Eric Gale's 1980 LP "Touch of silk" - "Au privave". The band on that one is Gale, Blythe (as), Harold Vick (ts), Earland (org), Muhammad (d). A cooker, of course. Very commercial!

MG

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Another album that doesn't get mentioned much is McCoy Tyner's "4 X 4." It has Arthur Blythe on it, Freddie Hubbard, John Abercrombie, Bobby Hutcherson, Al Foster, and Cecil McBee. Very good session.

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4x4 is excellent indeed. Interesting story....Woody Shaw was apparently supposed to do the Hubbard side, but after disappearing on "an errand" according to his wife (and being gone for 2 days) Tyner eventually tired and called Hubbard to fill in.

As far as Blythe, "Lenox Avenue Breakdown" and "In the Tradition" are both stellar in my opinion. "Lenox Avenue" was downright revolutionary at the time.....a big label album with tuba instead of bass....a refreshing sound and concept. I just love "Jitterbug Waltz" from "In the Tradition"....

bigtiny

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In a slight blast from the past, there's a trio that will be playing in town in September that harks back to those early 80's days: Vernon Reid on guitar (played with Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society among others), Jamaaladeen Tacuma (played with Prime Time among others), and Cornell Rochester (played with James "Blood" Ulmer among others). I think I'll go see them.

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Always thought his Columbia years would make a nice Mosaic Select.

Or the James Blood Ulmer Columbias from the same time frame, although there was not enough released material for a Select.

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A bit later than the period under discussion and perhaps rather obscure (compared to some of his other sessions as a sideman) is the stellar appearance on organist Jeff Palmer's Island Universe (Soul Note), which also has some hot playing from drummer Rashied Ali and John Abercrombie at his most adventurous (some have said eccentric). This disc is highly recommended if you haven't heard it.

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I always thought of him as the "Lou Donaldson of his generation".

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In a slight blast from the past, there's a trio that will be playing in town in September that harks back to those early 80's days: Vernon Reid on guitar (played with Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society among others), Jamaaladeen Tacuma (played with Prime Time among others), and Cornell Rochester (played with James "Blood" Ulmer among others). I think I'll go see them.

I would go too, if I lived in Paris.

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I always thought of him as the "Lou Donaldson of his generation".

I can hear what you're saying, but I think that LD made more good records than AB.

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I always thought of him as the "Lou Donaldson of his generation".

I can hear what you're saying, but I think that LD made more good records than AB.

Very true.

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You really hit the nail on the head with those Blythe albums, Tom. How well I remember them! I started collecting Arthur Blythe albums in 1984, when I first started getting seriously into jazz. In the Tradition was probably my favorite; even the sound didn't bother me (though I seem to recall that some thought a screw-up in the mastering might have given it that strange sound.) The only things about Illusions I didn't care for were the painfully bad cover and rather pretentious title. I must have been forewarned by someone about the "Sunshine" album, because I gave it a wide berth...I think you may have a point that people who were burned by that one never took him seriously again. For some reason, Lenox Avenue Breakdown never grabbed me, but I liked all the others (pre-Sunshine of course.) The end of the 70's thru the early and mid-80's were indeed a fascinating period in jazz, but I've got to admit that for me that's all bound up with my first discoveries in the music, so of course it will always seem special to me.

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I always thought of him as the "Lou Donaldson of his generation".

I can hear what you're saying, but I think that LD made more good records than AB.

Very true.

Yeah!

But probably AB hasn't made as many BAD ones as Lou, either. (Not counting "Hot dog" :))

MG

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Nothing to add other than the AB cello-guitar-tuba band is one of my all time favorite ensembles. When I finally discovered this music I couldn't believe how long I had gone without it. I had In The Tradition for years, with no idea what I was in for. I love it when that happens.

I'd also recommend the Gil Evans recordings Priestess and Live at the Public Theater with Blythe. The latter has a ripping version of Stone Free, an arrangement not on Evans' Hendrix LP.

For no reason, I'll also give props to Oliver Lake's Life Dance Of Is, which I always bust out once I listen to any of the above.

I found the Sunshine LP at a store in Denver a few months ago, and couldn't believe what I heard. It reminded me of Beefheart's "Tragic Band" period.

Blood Ulmer's Columbia recordings would make a smart Mosaic set. And don't miss America - Do You Remember the Love? on Blue Note.

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Priestess is KILLER! Sangrey turned me onto that one years ago and I've been thankful ever since.

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I like the idea of a Mosaic set, too. Mosaic has a funny way of presenting things that individually I would pass over, into something seemingly essential.

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