James Newton remains slightly baffled by his continued appearance at or near the top of the flute category of the Down Beat poll when he has not appeared in public as a flutist for several years, especially as some of his finest recordings are not easy to get hold of. (His Grammy Award-winning African Flower from 1990 is out of print; Amazon.com has used copies for $49.95.) Much of his absence from performance has been the result of his focusing on other interests--composition, conducting and teaching--while he held Professorships at University of California at Irvine, California Institute of the Arts, and Cal. State University at Los Angeles, and acted as Musical Director/Conductor of the Luckman Jazz Orchestra. Recently, however, Newton has resigned from these positions to continue composing he recently traveled to Italy to present the premiere performance of a Latin Mass--but also to refocus on flute performance. What made his appearance at Howard so special is that it was among the first, if not the first, live engagement of his revived career as a jazz flutist. He showed that he has lost none of his powers as a soloist.
First, however, the afternoon belonged to the Flutes of Howard University. They opened the program with three selections, Billy Taylor's "A Bientot" arranged by, and featuring, Jamal Brown, who revealed himself to be a soloist of some maturity, with an assured technical command of his instrument. He was joined on flutes by Maya Coleman, Shyesha Osler, and Professor Kamalidiin, plus a rhythm section of Jerrol Pennerman on piano and Quincy Philips, drums, both Howard students, plus guest artists Blake Cramer on vibraphone and Herman Burney on bass. They continued with Thad Jones' "A Child Is Born," arranged by Calvin Jones, and then Jamal's own composition "Simplicity," for which the group was joined by four of his students from Burrville Elementary School: Alexis Williams, Keana Brown, Jahnai Isom, and Joniece Barnes. They are to be congratulated for the remarkable stage presence they showed for such young performers.
It was now time for James Newton to make his appearance. Accompanied by the Howard flutists group, he began by featuring compositions from some of his best known recordings, Ellington's "Fleurett Africaine (African Flower)" from the album of that name, and "Los Dos Fridas," the third movement of his Suite for Frida Kahlo. In between, he offered Henry Threadgill's stirring "Celebration" and the world premiere of his own composition "New Blue," a work commissioned for this performance and dedicated to LaWanda and Sais Kamalidiin. With just the Howard rhythm section, James went on to perform "Straight Up and Down" by one his primary influences, Eric Dolphy. We were to have heard another of his compositions, "Ezekiel," for flute and electronics, but time did not permit this. Instead, the session ended, as usual, with a number of local flutists joining the Howard group for a grand finale. In this case, the vehicle was selected to reflect Newton's repertoire, Dr. Kamalidiin's arrangement combining Oliver Nelson's "Teenie's Blues" and Leonard Feather's "Twelve-Tone Blues." It may be slightly unethical to review a concert in which I also took part, but I have to reveal that I took a couple of choruses!
Describing Newton's playing and its impact is difficult; suffice to say that it goes beyond what is often expected from a flutist. A number of jazz flutists have built their approach on the basis of a conservatory training from the Western European Art Music tradition. Some, like Frank Wess, Hubert Laws, Ali Ryerson, and others, have based their techniques largely on late nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century performance traditions, those associated with the Classical, Romantic and Impressionistic periods of music. Newton has focused more on what are known as "extended" techniques that have been developed in the latter part of the twentieth-century, special sound production techniques on the flute such as flutter-tonguing, multiphonics, birdlike effects, alternative fingerings, etc., that have become on integral part of contemporary composition, but which have also been used to compensate for the relatively small dynamic and expressive range that limited the instrument's use in jazz for many years. The contemporary art music soundscape can be dissonant and abstract in the extreme. Newton, however, has combined techniques from this world with the vocalization techniques associated with Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Yusef Lateef, which along with the bending of notes, have come into jazz from Africa via the Blues. The result gives the flute an unprecedented technical range but also an enhanced expressive power. Taken together, these provide the basis of Newton's approach and indicate why his playing has achieved such status in the eyes, or ears, of critics even after an extended lay off. His performance on this day displayed all of these qualities, and suggested that he is rapidly regaining the full extent of his instrumental prowess and will shortly be reclaiming his position in the jazz flute world.
In this effort Newton received support that was a credit to the Howard group, which had very limited rehearsal time to master some very difficult music, with its wide melodic leaps, odd meters and so forth. The rhythm section was with him every step of the way, with major contributions from Burney and Cramer, the latter's vibraharp adding the percussive, but harmonically open, quality that works beautifully with this kind of repertoire, from Eric Dolphy's classic Out To Lunch to recent Dave Holland sextet and big band charts. Burney missed much of the rehearsal time but still anchored the proceedings faultlessly. And all the Howard students displayed a musical maturity beyond their years.
I am confident that, as he drove away from the music building, Dr. Kamalidiin began to think about Flute Fête 2008. We will have to wait and see what he comes up with.
Note: When searching for information on James Newton do not confuse him with well-known movie music composer James Newton Howard; search engines fail to make the distinction. See: jamesnewtonmusic.com