The cover of Arthur Blythe's new album -- "Illusions" (Columbia JC36583) -- says it all.
A time-lapse photograph captures Blythe arching forward, his alto saxophone tracing the broad and colorful sweep of his movement. The picture, like the album, merges the past with the present and points toward the future.
Over the course of half a dozen albums, Blythe has surfaced as one of the most inventive and acclaimed voices in jazz.
Primed on everything from rollicking R&B to rarefied free forms, he now divides most of his time between two styles. The first, employing the unusual instrumentation of alto, guitar, cello, tuba and percussion, is rooted in the African experience. The second involves his "In The Tradition" band -- using the conventional bass, drums and piano rhythm section -- and draws freely on the legacy of Waller, Ellington and Coltrane.
"Illusions" is Blythe's first attempt to bridge the two approaches -- to make music that is, in his words, "simultaneously recognizable and surprising." Remarkably, he achieves both.
The album opens with "Bush Baby," originally recorded on the local Adelphia label and recast here to include funk/jazz guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer and cellist Abdul Wadud. Bob Stewart anchors it with a tuba ostinato figure upon which both Blythe and Ulmer build their improvisations. Once free of the sinuous theme, Blythe soars; his tone is forceful, never strident. Ulmer moves more cautiously. He pumps compressed, agitated phrases from his wah-wah pedal, adding to the dense, rhythmic textures, and slowly developing the elliptical patterns that recall his work with Ornette Coleman. Later Abdul Wadud's cello, heard in unison and counterpoint, brings another dimension of color to Blythe's tone on both the title track and "Carespin With Mamie."
Blythe jars listeners with the strut and swagger of "Miss Nancy," one of three original compositions done "in the tradition." Built around a recurring two-bar riff, it undergoes some convulsive changes -- at the hands of its composer, who is obviously inspired by his chattering rhythm section, and pianist John Hicks as well.
All told, "Illusions" isn't Blythe's most provocative album; "Bush Baby" was a lot more adventurous. Nor is it his most enjoyable; "In the Tradition" wins that one hands down. But there's no better introduction to the disparate elements, past and present, that make his music challenging and his future bright.
Another jazz artist finally enjoying the luxury of major-label distribution is multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers. As good as it is, his new album "Contrasts" (ECM-1-1162) would barely be distinguishable from a number of his small group recordings if it weren't for the exceptionally fluent trombonist George Lewis.
Rivers remains faithful to the austere format he first adopted in the mid-'70s when recording several lengthy duets with bassist Dave Holland. Once again, his compositions -- though shorter now -- are typically linear, summarized by brief descriptive titles like "Circle," "Zip" and "Verve." And again, Holland and percussionist Thurman Barker are responsive and resourceful. But what sets "Contrasts" apart from previous efforts is the pointed use of the trombone as a contrasting voice. Lewis isn't content just to hold down the rhythmic function Rivers ordinarily assigns the second born.
He underpins the pulse, carries it occasionally, but just as often constructs his own in the fact of Rivers' fiercely aggressive improvisations and more than once chases Holland's humming bass through accelerated passages.
In Lewis, Rivers has found a musician who carries his own weight and them some. It's a temporary alliance, but one that makes "Contrasts" surprisingly vivid.