The Circle with a Hole in the Middle

Rare Vinyl Revisited
Bill Shoemaker


Black Arthur Blythe
Bush Baby
Adelphi AD 5008

Black Arthur Blythe For most of his career, Arthur Blythe has simply gone by “Arthur Blythe.” On a few recordings made in the mid to late 1970s, however, the alto saxophonist was listed either as “Black Arthur” or “Black Arthur Blythe.” Intriguingly, the nickname came onto the media radar after Blythe moved to New York in 1973 from Los Angeles. Blythe’s reputation was then primarily based on his contribution to Horace Tapscott’s The Giant Has Awakened (recorded for Bob Thiele’s post-Impulse Flying Dutchman label in 1969), an album on which he is listed without the nickname. This supports the idea that the nickname was only used within close circles of friends and colleagues, principally the UGMAA community associated with Tapscott. It was UGMAA pianist Linda Hill who playfully dubbed the saxophonist “Black Arthur” after hearing enough of a Blythe discourse on the music’s validation of African-American identity.

The earliest album that put “Black Arthur” into semi-wide circulation was Charles Tyler’s 1974 LP, Voyage From Jericho (issued by Tyler on his own Ak-Ba imprint, it was reissued on CD by the French Bleu Regard label in ’93). He goes by “Black Arthur Blythe” in the personnel listing for the 1975 session that yielded the A side of issued Julius Hemphill’s ‘Coon Bid’ness (Arista-Freedom). Beginning in 1977, Blythe recorded three albums that trace his rise from hard scrabble loft gigs to Columbia Records’ jazz roster, but only one used “Black Arthur Blythe.” In February of that pivotal year, India Navigation recorded Blythe at The Brook, leading a distinctive sextet including trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah, cellist Abdul Wadud, Bob Stewart on tuba, and two percussionist – Steve Reid on traps and Muhamad Abdullah on congas. Two “Arthur Blythe” LPs were culled from the date: The Grip, which was promptly released, and Metamorphosis, issued a few years later (they were brought together for the CD reissue, In Concert, in ’91).

In December, Blythe made his first studio date for the Silver Spring, Maryland-based Adelphi label, Bush Baby. Leading a trio with Stewart and conga player Ahkmed Abdullah (who, based on the cover photography for the India Navigation and Adelphi LPs, appears to be the same person as Muhamed Abdullah). It is his only album that has used the name, “Black Arthur Blythe.” At the time, the name was unremarkable to the extent that musicians changing or amending their name were a somewhat common occurrence. The fact that such consciousness movement-inspired name changes now are so rare may very well be part of the legacy of the neo-cons’ grasp on the generation that came after Blythe.

Blythe’s music on Bush Baby is much like the “Black Arthur Blythe” tag, bluntly exclamatory and buoyantly mellifluous. His four compositions have an aura of urgency, reinforced by Blythe’s buzzing tone and Stewart’s bellows. Conversely, the arc of Blythe’s themes and Abdullah’s grooves give the music an attractive earthiness. As much as any recording of this period, Bush Baby was down home loft jazz. It wasn’t pastiche or conceit. Instead, Blythe’s music had a signal quality, which was identified by annotator W. A. Brower:

His choices … what to use … when and where … the precision of them … are those of a young master. He is not simply unleashed until exhausted. His virtuosity is beyond athleticism. His virtuosity is of another order. It is about order. He is a creator in post-free music. His sound and its authority are unmistakable. His compositions like Bird’s have the same originality and perky freshness of his improvisations. It is ‘known fact’ among those at the heart of the music that Arthur Blythe is one of those who is setting the standard.

The album’s opener, “Mamie Lee,” exemplifies how Blythe staked out this post-free terrain in part by composing themes that are more folkish than cosmopolitan, even though they often relied on jutting, staccato themes. He did this largely through rhythmic feels that had a bop-informed bounce or swung like it was Saturday night. While much credit has to go to the saxophonist’s keening, thick tone, Stewart was also essential to the success of Blythe’s compositional approach. Their unisons plumped the themes; in the open sections, Stewart stretched Blythe’s angular lines like taffy, but, rhythmically, stayed deep in the pocket. This allowed Abdullah to tweak the contour of the groove at propitious moments.

The other three compositions mix these basic ingredients in different proportions. Blythe uses a riff-based theme on “For Fats,” which a huffing Stewart holds down with a strutting counter line. “Off The Top” is a short two-part line, a blurted phrase that gives way to a boppish stream of notes. Blythe swoops over the vamp anchoring the title tune, the piece swerves between deep grooves and swirling texture-driven asides. In each case, there is a mingling of African drums, New Orleans brass bands and modern jazz. More so than any other of his many albums, Blythe encapsulated the African-American music continuum with a minimum of elements, instrumentally and compositionally. In doing so, he created music with an avant edge that nevertheless had the direct communicative qualities found in blues, early jazz and swing.

The India Navigation and Adelphi albums created a splash on the downtown loft scene, which was partially whipped up by Stanley Crouch. By then, Crouch had pretty much given up any aspiration to become the next Sunny Murray and had begun to shape the next wave of jazz as a critic. Blythe, however, was not a new face for Crouch. They didn’t simply know each other in Los Angeles; Blythe of a member of Crouch’s clearing house-like ensemble, Black Music Infinity. Thiele’s Flying Dutchman had also released Crouch’s 1969 straight-outta-Claremont-College spoken word record, Ain’t No Ambulances For No Nigguhs Tonight, so the critic was a natural choice to write the sleeve notes for Blythe’s 1979 Thiele-produced Columbia debut, Lenox Avenue Breakdown. After an introductory reference as “Arthur Blythe,” then “considered by a growing number to be the most impressive player of his instrument to appear in the last fifteen years,” Crouch reverts to “Black Arthur” for the rest of his exalting essay. There’s little of this embrace of the new in Crouch’s notes for the 1991 CD issue of The Giant Has Awakened, which was combined with Flight For Four, the first Flying Dutchman album by the John Carter & Bobby Bradford Quartet, as West Coast Hot (Novus). By then, Crouch had drunk the neo-con Kool-Aid for years, which may account for the almost obituary-like tone of the piece, a text in which the nickname “Black Arthur” is not invoked.

Aum Fidelity

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