Arthur Blythe,the LA/San Diego free jazz sax player,passed away on March 25th this year at the age of 76 due to complications from Parkisons disease. The only reason I am aware of him comes from a question to my father. It was about the last jazz album he brought before I was born. And it was Blythe’s 1979 album Lenox Avenue Breakdown. His recording career started comparatively late,similar to the also recently passed vocalist Al Jarreau. His group in the late 70’s was also a major training ground for a new generation of free jazz musicians such as guitarist James Blood Ulmer.
Not being an academic jazz writer,the best way for me to write about the more acoustic styles of jazz would be based on the feeling and sound they convey. Arthur Blythe’s music came across to me as being very similar in flavor to how Miles Davis approached his music during its electric period-strong rhythmic foundation but with a more abstract,free jazz compositional style. Blythe and his group seemed to be doing something similar but more acoustically. One song that best exemplifies that musical attitude is the title song to the album Lenox Avenue Breakdown.
Jack DeJohnette’s drums get the groove going with some hard swinging-with Ulmer and bassist Cecil McBee’s interaction keeping up with James Newton’s melodically bluesy flute. Newton and Blythe really let loose with their reed fanfarring after that,and just before each solo section of the song as well. The first solo is an extremely intense one from Blythe-flying into the higher registers with DeJohnette and Ulmer following along with his intensity. Next up is Newton’s extremely atonal flute solo-following by Bob Stewart’s bouncing tuba solo before that reed fanfare brings it all to a halt.
Arthur Blythe had been a member of the The Underground Musicians and Artists Association in the mid 60’s. And he began his recording career under the name ‘Black Arthur Blythe” to maintain his strong ethnic identification. His playing on the song “Lenox Avenue Breakdown” is filled with that passion,but is very clean in tone. This actually adds to its power. The aggressive loudness and emphasis on solos actually adds a bit of a rock feeling to the free funk-jazz atmosphere of the song. Its taken me some years to really get into the song. But its a strong musical statement from Arthur Blythe.