Anthony Davis & James Newton | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Anthony Davis & James Newton 

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ANTHONY DAVIS & JAMES NEWTON

Pianist Anthony Davis and flutist James Newton have kept busy with their own projects since they last recorded together, nearly a decade ago: Davis's opera Amistad received its world premiere at the Lyric Opera last season, and Newton has been working on his arrangements of Ellington material (begun for an album called The African Flower in the mid-80s) in anticipation of the 1999 centennial of Duke's birth. But the 1981 record Episteme (Gramavision) demonstrates their affinity for each other's music: Newton played in the ensemble that transported Davis's Balinese-inflected compositions, layered with interwoven rhythmic cells, from manuscript to vinyl. Davis swims effortlessly in the "third stream" synthesis of jazz and new classical, which though posited in the 50s has been realized mainly in the 90s. He's made composition his primary focus, revealing a passionate, rigorous intellect. And his early recordings as a pianist, with such jazzmen as Oliver Lake and Leroy Jenkins, show a gifted musician with enormous control--think Cecil Taylor with better manners. Newton's music employs an emotional flexibility more typical of jazz, and though this allows him to mirror Davis's restraint, he can also heat up the proceedings with the hardest-blowing and most confrontational flute work since Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Charles Lloyd broke free of the instrument's cool-jazz persona in the late 60s. Because both Davis and Newton have such responsive ears, I expect this night of duets, part of Steppenwolf's "Traffic" series, to be a signal example of chamber jazz improvisation. And because Newton, on some recent recordings, has displayed an interest in using his art as a meditational tool--which complements Davis's fascination with the hypnotic dusk-till-dawn gamelan performances that accompany wayang, or Indonesian shadow-puppet theater--I'm hoping the music will rise clear out of the chamber from time to time. Monday, 7:30 PM, Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted; 312-335-1650. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Anthony Davis photo by Roy Black/ James Newton photo by Peter Carni.

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