15. A talent takes wing

Down San Diego Way. From Arthur Blythe, Lenox Avenue Breakdown, 1979

Did I say this little series would avoid obvious “best of” lists? Well, not always. This one has had plenty of love from the critics, but it did disappear for quite a while in pre-internet days. I admit I bought the vinyl partly because it had the best sleeve design of any LP, ever. But the way the music burst out at first listening kept it in my mind even more effectively than that classic piece of 12 inch by 12 artwork.

what LP design space was for…

There are just four tracks on the LP, and Down San Diego Way is a determinedly good-humoured introduction, a taste of instant sunshine. James Newton’s liquid flute is heard first, after the initial bass statement from Cecil McBee, then Blythe competes with him to occupy the upper register. The contrast between Newton’s tone, pure and clear except when he vocalises for emphasis, and Blythe’s huge, rich alto sound is one of the things that makes the session.

The solos here are bright and breezy, too. One guesses this is why CBS – Blythe making his major label debut* here, about to become an overnight sensation at 39 – put it first. The other tracks offer some of the most uncompromising music they ever put out. The sax and drum dialogue between Blythe and Jack deJohnette attains a rare ferocity in places. Bob Stewart’s tuba, liberated from bass duties much of the time by having Mcbee on hand as well, gets some fully-realised solos. James “Blood” Ulmer, Blythe’s exact contemporary – fresh from Ornette Coleman’s early electric ensembles and soon to sign for CBS himself – contributes wild harmolodically-flavoured guitar. Nowadays I’d point to hints of Henry Threadgill’s sound world, but really the style Blythe fashioned in his years on the West Coast before he made the move to New York is all his own. And here it takes glorious flight.

The whole session is a bit of a studio jam, and there’s an arbitrary-feeling fade at the end of this cut, but the rhythmic engine fires up again straight away on the title track, so what the hell. Down San Diego Way remains a great place to visit.

*The striking quartet set on the all standards In The Tradition seems to have been recorded earlier but released, as I remember it, later. This one was the first to feature the kind of sound Blythe was normally after, anyhow.

Full album

Why the No 15? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify

And I’m going to collect all the posts on this page.

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