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David "Fathead" Newman's 75th Birthday Extravaganza at Iridium

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David "Fathead" Newman's 75th Birthday Celebration
Iridium
New York, New York
January 24, 2008

The jazz tourist in New York can be easily disappointed. Historical 52nd street is now a palimpsest over which Times Square has imperially strewn yet more of its glitter and spectacle. But standing amidst all this post-Giuliani glamour is Club Iridium, a lonely basement club sharing the corner of Broadway and 51st with the ghosts of Club Onyx, the Downbeat, and the Three Deuces. As is typical in this part of town, tourists comprise the majority of the crowd at Iridium. Still, even though it stands in-between the Starlite Diner (which auditions singing waitresses every Friday) and the Winter Garden (still selling out Mama Mia after all these years), the humble Iridium offers something of greater substance to out-of-towners. And on the night of January 24th, a crowd comprised of jazz fans from far and wide congregated at Iridium. It was at this club that David "Fathead" Newman chose to celebrate his 75th birthday with nothing short of a star- studded extravaganza.

Indeed, It seemed that half of the audience went up on stage at some point during the evening. Before beginning to invite his friends up to the stage in twos, however, Newman played a couple of songs with "the Main Band." These are the players with whom Newman regularly performs in his current home of Woodstock, New York: Warren Bernhardt on piano, John Menegon on bass, and Yoron Isreal on drums. They are all seasoned veterans who affect a real coziness playing together. Burnhardt pushes the piano but never flies across it or bangs on it. Menegon pushes a meaty tone through a Hartke stack. Isreal is steady and melodic. Launching into the first set at about 8:45, the band immediately fired up a modal burner. If there was anybody attending the event who doubted Newman's chops, this piece served as ample evidence that the tenor giant had lost little vitality in the intervening 75 years between his birth and this night at Iridium. If anything, he has grown as a player: his jazz chops seem surer than ever before. After concluding the song, Newman shared with the crowd a heartfelt sentiment. He reached out with his thanks and graciousness for the long and fulfilling life he has led.

Then the guests began to crawl out of the woodwork. First, Phil Woods (the announced guest) joined the band. Next, after Woods took the stage, John Scofield, the first "surprise"—guest for the evening, walked out from the kitchen door and joined Newman at the front of the club. The main band, with these notable additions, launched into "Just Friends." By my lights, this was the highlight of the evening's performance. Newman played the head straight and Woods, on his alto, harmonized and weaved around the leader—beefy statement of the theme. Meanwhile, Scofield filled in the gaps with crunchy clusters of chords and twangy, stretchy lines that taunted Bernhardt's 'comping on the piano, and it never got too busy. Scofield and Woods stayed onstage for a reading of Milt Jackson's "Bags' Groove" that sacrificed some of the bop to bring out the blues.

Woods' alto and Newman's flute warmed up the group for the fireworks that followed. Scofield, who (as guitarists are wont to do) may have had his amp set a bit high, but positively killed regardless. During his solo he sputtered out double stops and then, at last, let out a long line that ended at the top of the neck. A final high note leapt right out of Scofield's hands and landed squarely in Bernardt's lap. After Bernhardt's similarly inspired solo the band stated the theme for a second time but with even more verve, energy, and fire.

Then Woods and Scofield exited stage left. The next two guests called to the stage were "the Little Giants"—Marcus Belgrave (Newman's band mate in Ray Charles' Atlantic era band) and Jimmy Cobb. Really the evening proved to be an absolute embarrassment of riches. Just as the newly constituted frontline finished reading the head of "Hard Times," Bennie Powell, another band mate from the Charles band, was seen walking out of the audience and onto the stage. Cobb kept it cooking in the hi-hat and cymbal register, Bernhardt pushed and prodded, and Powell, Belgrave, and Newman made up spontaneous barrelhouse backlines to lend riffing support to the soloists. And then, after they finished the set with "Oleo," the house brought Newman a cake decorated with a single candle, the seventy-four missing candles being, I suppose, ones to grow on.

For the second set, students at half-price admission (and with a drink or two already in them) descended on the club. Phil Woods played again on this set. After playing a couple more burners, Woods brought in the band on "Body and Soul" with a stunning solo intro that proved the highlight of his guest shot for the evening. Later in the set, Mike LeDonne made a virtuosic guest spot and Paul Shaffer took over the stage to warble through a spirited version of "Unchain my Heart." The second set was not as good as the first, but like the crowd, it was quite a bit looser, and that sort of performance has its own virtues.

At the conclusion of the set, the Iridum wait staff counted our money and hurried us out into Times Square. Walking out into that chilly January night, I made a realization. It may not be the same Uptown as it was sixty, even seventy, years ago, but places like Iridium are special. Underneath all the superficiality that is Times Square in 2008, there still exists a sediment of historic Uptown. Gurgling up from some reptilian part of the city, the spirit of jazz still has the power to renew itself, even in the most unlikely of places.


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