Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Arthurian Alto of Arthur Blythe

I have been listening to a lot of avant garde jazz lately, against my better judgment, but in obedience to my ears. I chanced upon Arthur Blythe's Focus in the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, the Koran of Jazz Jihadists.

This is an astonishing recording on a number of dimensions. First, it is a superbly recorded piece. My usual method of judging a jazz recording is simple: can you hear the buzz of the bass. That doesn't work so well here, as there is no bass. But the crisp strike and echo of every instrument stands out in 3 or 4D. And the constant snort of the tuba is a statement of authenticity.

Second, it is an unusual set of instruments, beyond the absence of the bass (which is the most common instrument in jazz).
Gust William Tsilis plays bass marimba. Bob Stewart plays tuba, and Cecil Brooks III is on drums. The marimba gives the music an exotic, ethnic feel, while the tuba allows the platform to slither under Blythe's horn. This selection of sounds, with its unique sparkle and space, is itself a work of genius.

Finally, Blythe is determined to build a bridge between the avant garde approach to composition, and more traditional hard bop linguistics. The result is something that almost any jazz fan can enjoy, while teasing and titillating connoisseurs all along the range. He does a version of "C.C. Rider" that is almost traditional blues, and a deeply personal piece, "My Son Ra," that pushes the envelope around the heart. A little known Monk piece, "Children's Song" is beautiful, if not so much Monkish in its reading.

I have loaded my favorite piece from the album, "Nightcreeper." It reminds me of a Wayne Shorter composition, and not only for its spooky title. Blythe's alto creeps sinuously across the acoustic landscape, rising occasionally to strike with orchestral force. You can find it at:
Enjoy, and if you do, purchase the disc. You can find it on eMusic.

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