Arthur Blythe is one of the most gifted alto sax players to emerge from the 1970s. At age 59, he stands squarely with one foot in the bebop tradition and the other firmly planted in the avant garde. The distinctive sounds he blows hit deftly at every spot in between.
On Thursday, July 29, the audience at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library 1008 Wall St. were privileged to hear Blythe working alongside Nate Morgan on piano.
In his introductory remarks, the Athenaeumšs Dan Atkinson described Blythe as, "one of the most important jazz musicians to come out of the San Diego area." This was not mere hype.
Of the two men that stepped up to the bandstand that night, Blythe was the one with cubic body and the closely-cropped dome. Close behind him came the taller man, pianist Nate Morgan, whose head is made massive by leonine dreadlocks.
From their sheer presence, it looked as if the Lord Buddha had manifested himself in La Jolla to play saxophone, and had brought along some graying Rastafarian sidekick.
The set began with "Faceless Woman," from Blythešs 1994 album Retroflection. The simple piano-alto combination might invite a crass comparison with well-known recordings of John Coltrane with pianists such as McCoy Tyner. But Blythe has been quoted elsewhere as having long ago given up trying to emulate Coltrane. By the time Blythe recorded with Tyner, Blythe had become a stylist in his own right.
Blythe grew up in San Diego, only returning to his native Los Angeles to work with Horace Tapscott with whom he appeared regularly until 1974, by which time they had co-founded the Union of God's Musicians and Artists Ascension. Blythe moved to New York in the mid 1970's and mostly led his own bands since 1977. After a brief experiment with pop music, he returned to jazz in 1984 with the Leaders, an all star free-jazz sextet.
If it can be said that Blythe first made his name appearing regularly in Tapscottšs Pan-Afrikan People's Arkestra. This is an important link with Morgan, who, in 1969, was the third pianist to be a member of the Arkestra.
Reunited in the Athenaeum library last Thursday neither of these seasoned campaigners were taking anything for granted, even though by the time Blythe moved back to San Diego, two years ago, it was with an assured place in jazz history as an artist of international stature.
The aura of intense concentration was palpable through compositions such as "As of yet," a track from Blythešs 1996 album, Calling Card. Throughout the evening, the audience seemed entranced and tended to respond with total attention. Most sat utterly still, although one or two, with eyes ecstatically closed, seemed to be attempting to dance while seated.
Blythešs remarks between numbers were minimal and humble, although he took to referring to other musicians as his "constituents" throughout the evening. The late Don Pullen, he referred to as "One of our constituents who passed on not too long ago."
If the tenor sax legend, Lester Young, was "the Prez," then it is not unreasonable for an elder statesman as powerful as Blythe to assume the role of a senator in some imagined jazz assembly.
Standing so still in his gray suit as he played with his back against the piano, Blythe might have been an oil painting. The small brightly-polished brass instrument held slightly askew in the big manšs small hands, gave the picture a cubist look.
Morgan, hunched Sphinx-like at the keyboard, tapped his left foot against the polished wooden floor. His fingernails could be heard hitting the keys as his fingers worked through what seemed to be a series of musical puzzles.
It was as if they were channeling deep within themselves to follow the implications of the music. At the end of a composition Blythe would take the mouthpiece from his lips and look up with a sudden smile of arresting gentleness, like that of a baby awaking from a nap.
The special thing about music like this is the way it has to be recreated freshly every time at the point of performance. Although Billy Strayhornšs "Blood Count" has been a big band standard since 1965, it was with a full-bodied and soulful interpretation that Blythe opened the second half of the evening.
From the Ellington legacy, through Monk, the duo brought a fresh take on both traditions before moving on to "Odessa," a track Blythe recorded back in 1979 on Lenox Avenue Breakdown, reissued in 1998. The Athenaeum audience was able to see the man himself play those solos with his eyes shut.
The Athenaeum Music & Arts Library is to be congratulated for closing its 10th Anniversary Series of summer jazz concerts on such a climax. Athenaeum Jazz will return to the Neurosciences Institute in the fall. For information on becoming a "Friend of Jazz" call program director Dan Atkinson at 858 454 5872.