|Here is a new album by two accomplished blues singers. Rather than the voice, however Arthur Blythe's instrument is the alto sax, while David Eyges' is the electric cello. ("The cello is the instrument closest to the human voice," Eyges has said.) As the musicians explain in the booklet note, the music draws from diverse sources: "the blues, folk music, jazz standards." Though they come from very different musical background, Blythe and eyges prove in their meeting to be remarkably compatible.
Classically trained, with a degree from the Manhattan School of Music, Eyges has retained a deep affection for traditional rural blues - Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, specifically - and the works of Mond, Mingus, and Ornette Coleman. By the end of the 1980's, Eyges had made a gradual shift from classical to jazz music, and also from acoustic to electric cello, becoming in effect one of the pioneers on that instrument in jazz. With a marked preference for playing in small group formats, over the last several years he has recorded with Byard Lancaster, Paul Bley, Jacki Byard, Jeanne Lee, and with Arthur blythe and Bruce Ditmas on Synergy (In & Out, 1996).
If called upon to name today's most prominent exponents of the alto saxophone, one would have to include Arthur Blythe - unless, of course, voting in the "Down Beat" Reader' Poll, the annual Worst Case Scenario. Looking over blythes career, from his early work on the west coast with Horace Tapscott in the 1960's, then as a part of New York's innovative and experimental loft workshops of the 1970's and beyond to his subsequent period of recording with Columbia, it is fascinating to note how exploratory his work has been while remaining roots-bound. In the 1990's his career has been highly varied, stull running the gamut from mainstream to free improvisational jazz. Certain high points should be noted: Enja dates with th elikes of John Hicks and Cecil McBee, a relatively brief period with the World Saxophone Quarte, and gigs with two occassional collectives, Roots and The Leaders. Blythe's long association with Chico Freeman has always been a particularly productive one. And now appears David Eyges.
There are sixteen original tunes on "Today's Blues", all clocking in at under five minutes, all ultimately derived from blues forms. the opening cut, "the John and the Sam," has a hummable folkish theme not unlike Guiffre's "The Train and the River," while "American Forms 2" is a boppish tune with blythe's free-ranging alto playing over Eyges' pizzacato cello. In the very different "No Solitude," Eyges' arco probings above Blythe's vibrato creates a shimmering lead into the song proper. Occasionally the voices separate. Eyges' allbowed solo, "Prayer," is a solemn, delicate song of lamentation and devotion. Blythe's "My Sun Ra," which had appeared earlier on an Enja album, "Hipmotism," is an unaccompanied no-frills blues/soul piece, concise and simple, and perhaps the tune most likely to stay with the listener afterwards. Some cuts are delicat and understate - not how the theme of "Jig Tag" is teased along - but as in the title song, "today's Blues," the majority go all out with some breathtakingly simple down-home blowing.
All in all, the material on this CD is all of a piece, synthesizing diverse aspects of African-American and American traditional music in a relaxed, flowing manner. Blythe has a rich tone that is all his own, both sweet and funky. He can wail or moan as well as whisper, and his sustained lyrical flights hint at what Sidney Bechet might have sounded like had he picked up an alto saxophone. Eyges' electric cello stands in for the role of bass in a lighter and more sensuous manner, at the same time broadening the range of effects (dig how the plucked strings in "Calling Mr. blythe" evoke the sounds of a banjo.) And CIMP's extremely sophisticated "au naturel" mode of recording creates a warmth and closeness that go hand-in-hand with the performances. maybe you remember those wonderful intimate albums of blues and spirituals that Archie Sheppp and Horace parlan made for steeplechase close to twenty years ago. Here's one that very much deserves a place alongside them on your shelf of essential American roots music.