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By Uri Hornstein
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Arthur Blythe – Lenox Avenue Breakdown (1979)

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A Darker Shade Of Blue

Label: Koch Jazz – KOC-CD-7871, Sony Music Special Products – A 34374; Format: CD, Album, Reissue; Country: US 1998
Original LP released in 1979 as Columbia JC35638
Recorded at Mediasound Studios, NY.
Mastered at CBS Recording Studios, New York
Design – Gene Greif; Design [Reissue Design] – Nicole Cavalluzzo; Illustration – Mark Hess


Given the urban title of alto saxophonist Arthur Blythe’s debut Columbia album, it’s quite a shock when he and his red-hot band of collaborators that include James Blood Ulmer on guitar, Bob Stewart on tuba, flutist James Newton, bassist Cecil McBee, and Jack DeJohnette open with the decidedly funky Latin breaks on “Down San Diego Way.” It’s not a vamp and it’s not a misleading intro, the first of four tracks showcases not only the deep versatility of the rhythm section, but Blythe’s own gift as both a composer and as a soloist. He states the melody, handing off the harmonics to Ulmer and Newton and then flies high into the face of its chosen changes, allowing the beat to change under him several times before bringing back a theme and letting Ulmer solo. Blythe’s grounding in the blues and in modal composition guide him on the title track; he and Newton move through intervallic shifts of chromatic intensity and spatial columnar structures, while Ulmer builds a middle bridge to both ground and fly from. But Blythe is not content here to showcase the extremes. On both “Slidin’ Through,” his exercise in harmolodic composition, and “Odessa,” Blythe provides ample proof of his wisdom as a bandleader, encouraging solo and rhythmic interplay between different groups of musicians such as McBee and Blythe on the former and between himself, Newton and Ulmer on the latter as the rhythm section winds it out in both cases, stretching the narrow envelope into something far more textured and thematically unified — note the Ornette-meets-noir ambience of “Odessa.” This group lays like a band that had been together for years, not the weeklong period it took them to rehearse and create one of Blythe’s masterpieces. Over 20 years later, Lenox Avenue Breakdown still sounds new and different and ranks among the three finest albums in his catalog.

~ Thom Jurek, Rovi

Note by a consumer:

This is one of my all-time favorite recordings. It’s rare when concept and execution so perfectly meet. Arthur Blythe had been playing the New York loft scene for some years before this album, exploring a wide range of musical settings (tuba and conga, quintet featuring cello, etc.) and avant-garde stylings. He said he used the tuba because it reminded him of old New Orleans music, and he saw it as a way to stayed rooted in the tradition while pushing forward musically. Blythe’s playing itself was/is very individual, a fat, warm sound that seems impossible to get out of an alto, with a lot of Coltrane inspiration but he definitely has his own voice–you could pick him out in a blindfold listening test in about two seconds. Anyway, on this album he got to take his explorations a bit further and managed to get some big name players to help out, like Jack DeJohnette, James Blood Ulmer, James Newton and Cecil McBee. The result is less austere than the albums Blythe made before this (Metamorphosis, Bush Baby), still true to an avant-garde exploratory spirit, but often melodic and lush, full of the blues, eminently accessible to almost any jazz fan.

The first two songs are great, but it’s songs three and four that make this album transcendent.

“Slidin’ Through” has an earthy blues theme that’s complemented by a slightly atonal riff by Ulmer, a wonderful McBee solo right after the head, played while the band keeps a subdued vamp going, DeJohnette doing some of that great bob-and-weave rhythm-keeping that’s his trademark, then Bythe comes in and opens it up, and from there the song builds and builds, with passionate, rapid-fire interaction between Blythe and DeJohnette, and DeJohnette taking the song out with so much power, pushing everyone in the band–there’s no tension/release when the song’s theme is played at the end, things aren’t over–it keeps a blistering amount of energy going through all the way to the fade-out.

This song was cited by Rafi Zabor in his novel “The Bear Comes Home” (I recommend) as an example of why mere mortal musicians feared the prospect of playing with Mr. DeJohnette. He wasn’t an accompanist, he was a force of nature, kicking everyone’s musical behinds until they were all playing their utmost.

The next song, “Odessa”, is very loose, Blythe melodically soloing over a meter-less rhythm section, kind of like Coltrane, with a slow, deep, almost mournful feel–for years I have hit the “repeat” button to hear that solo over and over, it’s so emotionally enagaging…

Anyway, this is definitely a desert-island disc for me. I’ve played it for jazz fans of all stripes and everyone has found something to like in it.

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