The fat, blowsy sound of alto saxist Arthur Blythe collars listeners like an outsize uncle’s bear hug. And though he varies its timbre, from sweet barbecue to dark menace, it informs everything he does, from his fast, wide vibrato–which lets him swing hard even when camped on a single note–to rococo turns of phrase that burst from petit point into CinemaScope. One of the most accomplished and versatile jazz players of the last quarter century, Blythe has found it difficult to follow any one recognizable path. When he hit the national scene in the mid-70s, using unorthodox instrumentation and densely layered harmonic schemes, it seemed he might help forge a new direction for the avant-garde; soon, however, he had formed a band called In the Tradition, which focused on the standard repertoire in a traditional quartet setting and made clear his debt to Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter. A brief stint with the World Saxophone Quartet, in which he replaced founder Julius Hemphill in the early 90s, promised an intriguing partnership with tenor saxist David Murray–both players love to invoke past styles and traditions, if only to refract them in the prism of postfreedom jazz. But by late ’93 Blythe had struck out on his own. His last domestic release, 1997’s little known Night Song (Clarity), employed a sextet featuring a tuba in place of the bass and vibes instead of piano; his alto dances delightful rings around and through the rhythm section much as it did on earlier albums. Another current project–a trio with drummer Bruce Ditmas and cellist David Eyges–has resulted in Synergy (In + Out). Released last year and slated for U.S. distribution next week, it’s lit by some of Blythe’s spiciest and most heartfelt playing of the decade. His Chicago rhythm section features former In the Tradition bassist Fred Hopkins, drummer Vincent Davis, and most intriguingly guitarist John McLean, whose incendiary solos and voluptuous tone should be a good match for Blythe’s. Friday, 9 and 11 PM, and Saturday, 9 and 11 PM and 1 AM, Rituals, 537 S. Dearborn; 312-922-3834. NEIL TESSER
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Nancy LeVine.