David "Fathead" Newman
Improving with age
by Piotr Michalowski
Tenor saxophonists, perhaps more than any other instrumentalists, seem to get better with age. Something marvelous happens to their tone, which often deepens and acquires a burnished, soulful tinge. David "Fathead" Newman, a man who has always played with the big sound often found among saxophone players from his native Texas, is a case in point. He has been playing the horn for more than half a century, and every time I hear him he seems to impress me more.
He first came to prominence in the 1950s as a member of the magnificent small band that accompanied Ray Charles, with whom he stayed for a decade. Charles was a staunch supporter of his sidemen and arranged for their own record debuts, often joining them on the piano; hence the title of the saxman's first album for Atlantic, Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David Newman. The contents set the pattern that Newman would follow for most of his career, mixing soulful, approachable blues and ballads with hard-nosed, straight-ahead jazz. Although known primarily as a tenor player, he also performs on alto, soprano, and occasionally even baritone saxophone and has also developed one of the more distinctive flute voices in jazz.
Newman's appearances with Ray Charles and his popular Atlantic recordings gave him enough recognition to step out on his own in 1964. On his own recordings the music fluctuated between pure jazz and pop-ish, sometimes overproduced, vehicles aimed at a different audience. Among his best jazz efforts was The Sound of the Wide Open Spaces, a no-nonsense date recorded in 1960 in tandem with another fabulous Texas tenor saxophonist and flutist, James Clay. A versatile performer able to adapt to many musical styles without discarding his own signature sound, Newman was always in great demand as a sideman. His solos can be found on recordings by Aretha Franklin, B. B. King, Natalie Cole, Dr. John, and many others who appreciated his ability to produce marvelously apposite, concise
one- or two-chorus solos that complement the star.
In recent years Newman has remained closer to his jazz roots, recording some very good albums accompanied by first-class pianists, such as Cedar Walton and John Hicks. He will be playing in Ann Arbor on Friday and Saturday, March 21 and 22, with the house trio at the Bird of Paradise, and in such contexts he tends to stick to standards and modern jazz classics, with a few of his own tunes thrown into the mix. Expect an evening of comfortable swing, heartfelt ballads, and quite a bit of soul.
[Originally published in March, 2003.]