NEW YORK -- The warmth of saxophonist and flutist David "Fathead" Newman's musicality and personality permeated the spirited proceedings Thursday at the Iridium Jazz Club, as an all-star gathering kicked off a four-night, 75th birthday salute to him.
Newman -- joined by such notables as alto saxophonist Phil Woods, trombonist Benny Powell, guitarist John Scofield and drummer Jimmy Cobb -- called a variety of numbers jam session style, employing his hearty tone and trademark blues-meets-bebop style. He was also a charming emcee, clearly enjoying the festivities.
The diamond anniversary celebration came a bit ahead of the Dallas native's birthdate: Feb. 24. It was also just in front of the release of his latest High Note CD, "Diamondhead." But the timing was ideal to honor this journeyman jazz artist, famed for his work with Ray Charles from 1954-1964, and who has been a leader for more than 40 years with 32 CDs to his name.
The bluesy, riff-driven "Sunrise" was a solid first set opener, showcasing the leader sans others, and allowing his rhythm section -- pianist Warren Bernhardt, bassist John Menegon and drummer Yoron Israel -- to shine. Newman played tenor saxophone, boasting a full, pleasing tone and playing anything from blues-rich passages to single notes tagged repeatedly for rhythmic and melodic effect. Bernhardt scored with dancing chords, which led to provocative single-note lines, and Menegon employed a big sound to deliver beguiling thoughts.
Woods and Scofield came aboard for a medium-paced, percolating "Just Friends." Newman switched to alto saxophone, and he and Woods played the theme together, each offering asides at points, giving the rendition flavor.
In solos, the hornmen revealed their distinctiveness. Woods' tone was bright and centered, and his deep Charlie Parker affinity was obvious. He played Parker-like scampers, reworkings of the theme, and more -- all with rhythmic juice. Newman's tone was breathier, softer, and his effective remarks were often simpler, a nod to his early experiences in blues settings in Texas -- though he, too, has a big chunk of Parker in his work.
Scofield, his tone quite round and full, though occasionally bent slightly with an electronic effect, revealed his knowledge of the mainstream jazz tongue in an essay that ran from lovely, dusky chords to brisk, note-laden bursts.
For "Bags Groove" with the same crew, Newman played some appealingly breathy flute. He then invited up a former Charles bandmate, bold-toned trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, and Cobb in for Israel on a peppy "Milestones." Here, Cobb's mercurial beat and Belgrave's rhythmically charged thoughts stood out.
Newman was back on alto for his long-standing favorite, "Hard Times," where he gave most of the solo space to his partners, who now included trombonist Benny Powell and guitarist Melvin Sparks. On the closing, speedy "Oleo," Newman swerved creative through the chord changes. Baritone saxophonist Howard Johnson scored with engaging flurries of notes, Powell with contrasting economy.
Newman's birthday bash continues tonight with saxophonist and flutist Frank Wess, saxophonists Vincent Herring and Bill Easley, and other guests. Tomorrow they include pianist Cedar Walton (first set only), singer Janis Seigel, trumpeter Lew Soloff, trombonist Steve Turre, drummer Cobb, and more.
Zan Stewart is The Star-Ledger's jazz writer. He is also a musician who occasionally performs at local clubs. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 324-9930.
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