Arthur Blythe's Facebook page reported that he died this morning, after having health problems for some time. The strength and energy his alto saxophone playing always had makes it hard for me to wrap my head around his long illness and death. I knew I had to spin one of his records tonight, and I thought about the rare Bush Baby, but in the end decided on Blythe's 1980 masterpiece, Illusions - not only perhaps Blythe's best, but one of the best jazz albums of that somewhat grim decade for the music.
In the 1960s and early 70s Blythe was part of the underground jazz scene in Los Angeles, playing with the legendary Horace Tapscott; Blythe's recording debut was on Tapscott's 1969 album The Giant is Awakened. Moving to New York in the mid 1970s, he became part of the underground, avant-garde scene there. But he didn't stay underground long. His music was edgy and forward-looking, but it was also hard-swinging and funky. Probably much to his surprise, he attracted the attention of Columbia Records, and signed a contract with them in 1978. His first Columbia album, Lenox Avenue Breakdown, came out the next year, and was a hit - in jazz terms, anyway. He made nine albums for Columbia over the next decade; Illusions was the third.
What makes this album so special? First, the intensity of Blythe's own playing - he's at the absolute top of his game here. Secondly, his two alternating accompanying bands are mighty impressive - they stay right there with him. Half of the six Blythe originals are played by his so-called "tuba band," with Bob Stewart on the eponymous instrument. Abdul Wadud on cello, Bobby Battle on drums, and the idiosyncratic guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer (who was attracting lots of attention in the jazz world himself at the time) complete the band. The other ensemble is Blythe's "In the Tradition" band, a standard jazz quartet. But what a quartet! The mighty John Hicks is the pianist, Fred Hopkins is on bass, and Steve McCall is the drummer. Below are "Miss Nancy," by In the Tradition, and "Illusions," by the tuba band. R.I.P., Arthur Blythe, and thanks for the music.