JAZZ REVIEW : Flutist Takes Audience on Thrill Ride : James Newton sometimes adds to his palette of sound by vocalizing while holding steady on his instrument.
James Newton has never received the attention he deserves on his home turf. Though the San Pedro resident consistently tops polls as best jazz flutist and is acclaimed in Europe and on the East Coast for his compositional abilities, he performs infrequently here, usually in connection with his job as professor of composition and jazz history at the California Institute of the Arts. His well-received Blue Note recordings that honored the work of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus were done in New York. His latest release, “If Love” on the JazzLine label, was recorded in Cologne, Germany.
Saturday, Newton was at the Fine Arts Center on the UC Irvine campus fronting a quartet as part of his current residency as the Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecturer in Fine Arts. With the sympathetic rhythm section of pianist Kevin Toney, bassist Darek Oles and drummer Son Ship Theus, the flutist took the audience of 150 on a thrill ride of moods and emotions, proving that those accolades from a distance are well deserved.
Newton’s “Nelson Mandela” is a good example of his compositional style, a blend of frontier-challenging adventure and traditional sensibilities. The flutist stood savoring the tune’s soothing rhythmic pace before tearing off on a spirited theme that was broken by abrupt periods of stillness. The combo then wound its way through a mysterious-sounding passage, led by Newton’s inquisitive flute, before the steam and sizzle of his solo.
Blessed with a clean, crisp tone, Newton sometimes adds to his palette of sounds by vocalizing over the flute, most often during blues-based passages. This isn’t to cover for a lack of technical skill, which Newton has plenty of, but to color his sound and provide emotional depth. The flutist hummed, shrieked and buzzed over a wide range while he played, sometimes moving the pitch of his voice while holding steady on his instrument. The effect worked best when he added mid-range compliment to a similar flute pitch. At higher ranges, his falsetto occasionally broke into a tea-kettle-like irritating whistle or a shrill nag.
Cunning arrangements of Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy” and Mingus’ “Sue’s Changes” utilized a variety of moods and rhythmic frames for solos. Keyboardist Toney played with a hip modernism, matching intense runs with dissonant block-chord statements and surprisingly placed moments of quiet. Oles proved accurate and inventive, inserting double stops and chords strummed with his thumb on Newton’s “Outlaw,” a tune that recalls the quirky rhythms of Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t.”
But Theus, a drummer who has worked with Pharoah Sanders and Horace Tapscott, proved to be the crowd-pleaser, turning cymbal-crazed solos into roiling tom-tom statements or overwhelming onslaughts against his snare. The drummer also shone in support, with percussive punctuation and seductive brushwork.
“Mr. Dolphy,” Newton’s tribute to the man (Eric Dolphy) he cites as his greatest influence and presented here as a duo with Theus, was the kind of energetic statement the late saxophonist-flutist was known for, and a chance for Newton to work at searing speeds. It’s ironic that Dolphy, himself a Los Angeles native, had to move to New York before his pioneering ways were accepted. Let’s hope Newton doesn’t have to do the same.