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David "Fathead" Newman at Pearl's

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Newman caressed and gently sculpted his melodies, making every note count.
David "Fathead" Newman
Jazz at Pearl's
San Francisco, CA
January 22, 2006

When David "Fathead" Newman picks up his weathered tenor saxophone and begins to blow, he doesn't compel you to listen with a towering tone or crazy acrobatics. He does it by connecting with his music on a human level, embodying a depth of feeling that suffuses the atmosphere of the room. You can't help but breathe it in.

Newman comes from a world in which the lines between straight-ahead jazz, the blues, and dance music were blurred into irrelevance. He began his career backing up post-WWII R&B stars like Lowell Fulson and T-Bone Walker, and famously anchored the Ray Charles band through Charles' explosive hit-making period in the late '50s and early '60s. Although his solo career, which began in 1958, has been generally bop oriented, he has never lost touch with that fertile, cross-pollinated musical ground from which he first sprung.

In the last of three nights at the cozy Jazz at Pearl's in San Francisco, just a few days before the release of his new CD, Cityscape (for HighTone Records), Newman glided through seven tunes in a first set full of grace and charm. From the opening notes of "On Green Dolphin Street," which Newman began in a downy-soft but soulful whisper, Newman caressed and gently sculpted his melodies in rounded tones with just a hint of gruffness at the center, making every note count.

Newman was joined on this gig by a pick-up band of local talent: Tammy Hall on piano, Michael Zisman on bass and Akira Tana on drums. Hall's blend of elegance and down- home feeling was an especially good fit for Newman's sound; her solo on "Green Dolphin Street" was thick and rich as chocolate syrup, and on the following tune ("Delilah"), she jumped easily between uptown luxury and Latin grease.

"Delilah" was the first of two tunes that Newman tackled on flute, and he gave the haunting melody a surprisingly snappy tempo. Thrusting and parrying, Newman juxtaposed sustained vibrato with rapid, tumbling figures, while Tana mounted a surgical strike on the tune's rhythmic core.

Newman is at his best on ballads, and Duke Pearson's "Cristo Redentor," with Newman moving to alto sax, was one of the night's highlights. Taken at a slow marching tempo, with lush textural embellishments from Tana, the tune had its religious underpinnings laid bare by Newman's solid alto phrases, which were part urban confidence, part plaintive cry. Hall's full-bodied, gospel-laced solo completed the evocation.

The band topped itself on Billy Strayhorn's "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing," as Newman, back on tenor, simply nailed the composer's poignant vulnerability. In a tender, gripping solo, Newman chose unusual notes that walked a knife's edge of solidity, often threatening to topple and shatter. Hall added a sense of melancholy optimism, as if soothing a worried brow while holding back tears, then thrust the melody upwards to blossom like the flower of the title.

Zisman got right to the point with melodic, almost sing-song solos on "Green Dolphin Street" and a strutting version of "Bags' Groove," and Tana closed the set with channeled intensity in a thunderous drum solo on "A Night in Tunisia," the only piece in which the 72-year-old Newman seemed to show his age. If his recent string of excellent recordings weren't enough, this night was further evidence that Newman still has plenty to say.

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