John Blair - vitar, vocals; Bob Sardo - organ; John Miller - bass; Jimmy Madison - drums; Daniel Benzebulun - congas
On his '70s albums like 1971's Mystical Soul, 1976's Southern Love, and 1977's We Belong Together, violinist-vocalist John Blair blended Coltrane-inspired searching and spirituality with funk to come up with a heady/infectious brew that connected with the burgeoning fusion crowd. Newport Jazz Festival impresario George Wein picked up on that connection by featuring Blair on the bill along with Chuck Mangione's quartet and John Mayall's Jazz Blues Fusion at the Philharmonic Hall for the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival.
His quintet opens with droning strains from Bob Sardo's organ before the full band kicks into the modal theme. Blair enters with some ferocious statements on his electric "vitar," an electric 5-string hybrid instrument that combines aspects of the violin and the guitar, on top of the throbbing rock-fueled bombast from drummer Jimmy Madison and bassist John Miller. Blair then showcases his soulful, smooth vocals on a relaxed rendition of the Richie Havens ballad "Sugarplums." He picks his vitar like a blues-rock guitarist at the beginning of an unnamed funk-laden number before unleashing his formidable bowing technique in an exhilarating Sugarcane Harris vein. On his original "Sometimes a Man," Blair distinguishes himself with velvety Jon Lucien-styled vocals on top of Madison's supple brushwork and Sardo's B-3 cushion. They hit an aggressive accord on an unnamed odd-time signature romp that puts the band through its paces, and they close out their Philharmonic set by wailing on a swinging 6/8 instrumental jam entitled "I Don't Know Why" that gives Blair and Sardo plenty of room to stretch out on their solos.
Born in Toledo, Ohio, on November 8, 1943, Blair grew up in San Diego as the eldest of nine children. He took to violin early on and by age 15 performed with the San Diego Symphony. He later attended the Eastman School of Music for two years, followed by a stint in the service during which time he performed as a member of the Air Force Strolling String Symphony. In 1966, following his discharge from the Air Force, Blair appeared on vibist Freddie McCoy's Funk Drops on Prestige. The following year he played on tenor saxophonist Harold Vick's Watch What Happens on RCA and in 1968 appeared on Richie Havens' adventurous Something Else Again with Jeremy Steig on flute, Eddie Gomez on bass, Warren Bernhardt on clavinet, and Havens on sitar. In 1970, Blair developed the vitar, and the following year he appeared on Alice Coltrane's Universal Consciousness (1971, Impulse!). He subsequently performed on McCoy Tyner's Song of the New World (1973, Milestone), Leon Thomas' Blues and the Soulful Truth (1973, Flying Dutchman), Esther Phillips' Capricorn Prince (1976, Kudu), and Mongo Santamaria's Dawn (1977, Vaya). Blair continued to perform and record through the '80s and '90s. His last recording as a leader was 2004's The Master Creed. Sadly, he was homeless and panhandling on the streets of New York at the time of his death from heart failure on June 3, 2006. (Milkowski)