Even the most intrepid and adventuresome listener, seeking revolution at the turn of every phrase, may eventually return to the familiar. A new release by saxophonist David "Fathead Newman is to be anticipated and celebrated for the sheer exuberance in the joy of playing beautifully. His tone, nurtured for fifty years and throughout forty albums as a leader, envelops the listener and soothes the troubled soul.
Newman's Life, dedicated to the late pianist John Hicks, is his eighth effort on HighNote Records. He explains within the liner notes that he "tried to choose compositions that people who listen to my music would be familiar with.
Neal Hefti's "Girl Talk starts the festivities, with the "Shearing Sound in full bloom. David Leonhardt's piano, the vibes of Steve Nelson and guitar of Peter Bernstein state the arranged introduction in octave intervals for the first eight bars. This is not to say, however, that the formula is mundane. Each musician displays his technical facilities and mature expressions, resulting in a cohesive improvised composition.
Hicks served in the piano seat for Newman many times in the past. His untimely passing in May, 2006 made the inclusion of his composition, "Life, appropriate. Nevertheless, the tune is not a funeral dirge, but rather a mid-tempo affirmation.
Newman's tenor performance on Burt Bacharach's "Alfie is surely the most crushing since Roland Kirk's interpretation on Now Please Don't You Cry, Beautiful Edith (Verve, 1967). The tune is stated with a breathy voice as smooth as Nutella spread. The group is hushed behind him. Steve Nelson, who has played with Newman for twenty years, proves why he is one of the most versatile mallet players in jazz.
The "Shearing Sound starts once again, this time in the context of "I Can't Get Started. Newman's flute, a bit raspy in tone but clear of phrase, begins the melody; the "Shearing Sound reenters. Newman restates the melodic line. The guitar/vibes/piano team plays its octave runs for two bars. The "Shearing Sounds reenters. The blood pressure has already plummeted.
Newman displays his alto talents on "Old Folks. Once again, the "Shearing Sound provides an introduction, before the closely recorded melody enters ever so gently. I always think of Dexter Gordon when I hear "Autumn in New York ; his early performance on Daddy Plays the Horn (Bethlehem, 1955) and the exquisitely broken melodic summation in Bertrand Tavernier's film 'Round Midnight are each stunning. Newman's alto performance is, in its own way, perfect. The listener is whisked away to a leaf strewn path in Central Park or, perhaps, a barren tattered street in Greenwich Village.
Co-produced by Newman with saxophonist Houston Person, Life is a subtle classic and is as definitive a statement on the posture of mainstream jazz as any record to be released this year. I have already returned to it many times. What more can one ask of a record?
Personnel: David "Fathead" Newman: tenor and alto saxophone, flute; Steve Nelson: vibes; David Leonhardt: piano; Peter Bernstein: guitar; John Menegon: bass; Yoron Israel: drums.