Arthur Blythe, the Generous Avant-Gardist

Farewell to the wonderful Arthur Blythe. “Black Music: Ancient to the Future” was a slogan coined by the Art Ensemble of Chicago but embodied by many provocative musicians of that era. With a huge lyrical sound and blues for days, the connection of Blythe to 40s-era R&B saxophonists like Earl Bostic was obvious. That was the “ancient” part, but Blythe was also a consummate modernist concerned with “future.” In 1991 I saw Blythe at the Village Vanguard with Kelvyn Bell, Bob Stewart, and Bobby Battle. It was so weird and fresh: definitely ahead of its time.

Blythe’s reputation was secured by a series of valuable and high-profile discs made for Columbia from 1977 to 1986. While it’s an important legacy and absolutely part of the canon, I admit that the band aesthetic can be a little too chaotic for my own taste. For example, In the Tradition is considered a classic but whenever I go back to it I come to the same conclusion: I wish I could have heard Blythe, Stanley Cowell, Fred Hopkins, and Steve McCall live at the Tin Palace. Undoubtedly the right set would have made me a lifelong believer.

Regrettably the next wave of stars to get a push from major labels, the so-called Young Lions, tended not to be so aware of the “future” side of the continuum. The way (for example) Arthur Blythe receded and (for example) Wynton Marsalis ascended has still not been worked through in our history. To this day many of us are reactionary against one side or the other.

As a teenager the Blythe disc I listened to the most was the now-obscure 1986 album Mudfoot by the Leaders with Chico Freeman, Lester Bowie, Kirk Lightsey, Cecil McBee, and Don Moye. Frankly this rhythm section is a little more transparent than on most of Blythe’s own records. A comparison of Blythe’s own tune “Miss Nancy” on Mudfoot with the earlier Blythe quartet version on Illusions is a clear illustration. And, damn, does Blythe take a great solo on this song with the Leaders. It’s all there: the honk, the surreal, post-Coltrane pentatonics, even nailing the hard parallel changes when needed. Yeah!