James Newton has garnered so many accolades in recent years for his composing and arranging talents that it's easy to forget just what a top-notch flutist he is.
Working in a quartet Saturday at the Village Theatre on the UC Irvine campus where he teaches music, Newton put his flute directly in the spotlight.
In a program that included standards, lesser-known jazz pieces and Newton's own composition commemorating the jury's decision in the first Rodney King beating trial, the flutist gave an impressive display of his technical capability and narrative ways.
The quartet, with pianist Todd Cochran, bassist James Leary and drummer Sonship Theus, set the ambitious mood with Wayne Shorter's "Footprints," Leary offering the familiar bass riff in strong, resonant tones. Cochran hinted at the melody as Newton unwound an introductory array of lines played with amazing agility and grace.
The flutist relied less on his trademark overtones and vocalizing than in previous concerts, playing in clean sustained tones with a minimum of vibrato and a surfeit of dynamic variation. At times, he uncoiled fleet, seemingly endless lines that were notable for melodic content.
When he did vocalize over his flute tones, as on "The Price of Everything" and Eric Dolphy's tribute to flutist Sabriano Gazzeloni, the effect added teeth to his solo, turning the purity of his unvocalized tone into something sharp and biting. These contrasting characteristics gave a depth to the performance that few attain on this thinly toned instrument.
Cochran, returning to performing after years producing albums for others, is an inspiring accompanist and a soloist with an ever-changing array of pianistic colors.)
Strong chordal passages followed lickety-split lines that, at times were repeated in an octave-jumping, locked-hands style. Just when you'd get comfortable with a pleasingly melodic section, the pianist would break the spell with pointed displays of dissonance.
Leary, the long-time bassist in Sammy Davis Jr.'s band who recently has been heard behind Nancy Wilson, used a stout tone in empathetic support, often echoing ideas from Newton or Cochran before suggesting responses of his own. He used the full range of his instrument when taking the lead, playing with lyrical beauty that contrasted with the more far-out play of his band mates.
Theus continues to be one of Southern California's strongest percussionists, and here he provided infallible rhythmic support while adding contrast and comment to the proceedings. He colored his sound with strokes at his chimes and woodblocks. At one point, he took an impressively dense solo on a wooden percussion box known as a dakadebello .
The free-form, full-of-turmoil styling of Newton's "The Verdict," with its brief, optimistic theme dissolving into swirling ascending passages, was balanced nicely with Duke Ellington's march-paced complaint, "Black and Tan Fantasy."
The 19-piece UCI Jazz Ensemble, conducted by Alfred Lang, opened the evening with a program that included Dizzy Gillespie's "Groovin' High," Tom Kubis' arrangement of "There Will Never Be Another You" and a Les Hooper arrangement of "On Green Dolphin Street."
The group's ensemble play was impressively tight and attentive, and competent solos were turned in by saxophonist Paul Navidad and Logan Bacharach, trumpeter Phil Belzer and drummer David Cheung. Lang joined the group on trumpet during "Groovin' High."