On the irregular occasions when Arthur Blythe totes his alto sax out of nearby Palmdale for an L.A. epiphany, one wants to break out the frankincense. Blythe himself, though, has walked some rough roads since being hailed as a savior of jazz in the late '70s and early '80s and undertaking later stints with the Leaders and the World Saxophone Quartet; his few latter-day recordings have drawn little public illumination. He must feel as if he has to keep getting reborn.
Friday's quartet performances at downtown's airy, arty Cafe Metropol on the first of two nights were an intimate reminder of Blythe's worth. Fixed on the floor like a carved bear and sheathed in a rumpled windbreaker, the Los Angeles native dealt out clean, considered lines tinged with a collard taste of sour blues.
The first set kicked off with a loose rendition of Blythe's knotty "Lenox Avenue Breakdown" and was graced with a ghost of alto vibrato on the mournful Don Pullen ballad "Ah George, We Hardly Knew Ya." It was all a bit careful and contained, Blythe acknowledging applause with a smile in his eyes but not his lips. The restraint derived partly from mechanical issues with Blythe's horn that caused a few note fluffs; he spent the entire time between sets tinkering.
The atmosphere was warmer when the quartet came back to turn in masterfully eloquent versions of Thelonious Monk's mutant swinger "Light Blue," Blythe's sophisticated up-tempo ballad "Elaboration" (on which Blythe perfectly executed scary intervallic leaps at double time) and, perhaps ironically, Duke Ellington's "Things Ain't What They Used to Be."
Blythe bequeathed considerable solo space to his bandmates, and they were more than trustworthy. Pallid, bespectacled Gust Tsilis, a Euro-looking but Chicago-bred vibes man and a longtime Blythe friend, splayed his super-fuzzy red-headed mallets with exquisite taste, occasionally emphasizing an intense high note or a shivery dissonance; at the end of one torrid passage he heaved out a pant of mock exhaustion. Tall, shaggy young bassist Nick Rosen, who's risen fast through the local jazz ranks, nailed the beat in accompaniment and gazed ecstatically at the ceiling during his logical but spontaneous solos. Alex Cline, a true L.A. essential, grooved effortlessly on drums, hitting a little heavier than usual to anchor the music's blues roots and generating audience hoots with his dizzily inventive improvisations.
There's a crying need for jazz men with the deep-rooted chops, compositional acumen and plain old experience of the 66-year-old Blythe. But maybe the need ain't crying loud enough.