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Arthur Blythe: Focus

The primary attribute that distinguishes Arthur Blythe’s Focus is its sound. First there’s Blythe’s unique alto tone. Room filling and reedy (you can almost hear the individual vibrations) and ornamented by a quick, rhythmic vibrato, Blythe’s muscular sound identifies him immediately. Then there’s the quartet’s unusual instrumentation: tuba in place of string bass and marimba instead of piano. This special combination of sonic properties sets the recording apart from many others offering a similar stylistic approach. For aside from the extra latitude Bob Stewart’s tuba affords him in generating imaginative bass lines, the playing is essentially mainstream and straightahead.

Monk’s “Stuffy Turkey,” set over a jaunty New Orleans drumbeat and some walking tuba, finds the altoist swinging forcefully and injecting blues feeling into every phrase. On the old-time “C.C. Rider,” he evokes the spirit of the great rhythm and blues saxophonists over Stewart’s boogie bass pattern and drummer Cecil Brooks III’s backbeat shuffle. His meditative improvisation never strays far from the tonal center and the piece’s basic melodic motive on the mode-oriented “Bubbles,” a duet with marimba player Gust William Tsilis. And Blythe’s big, expressive tone and masterful use of dynamics are never more beguiling than when they are enhancing Duke Ellington’s inherently soulful “In a Sentimental Mood.”

Originally Published