David "Fathead" Newman | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

David "Fathead" Newman 

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First, that nickname: it goes back more than 50 years, to when saxophonist David Newman botched some ill-remembered riff in high school band and his exasperated music director started calling names. But the epithet has stuck, for the same reason that big guys get called "Pee Wee": it conveys the real quality by pointing to its opposite. In fact, Newman's former boss Ray Charles, who in the 50s and 60s had firsthand knowledge of his strengths, preferred to call him "Brains," referring to his nervy, bluesy technique on tenor, alto, baritone, and flute; perhaps Charles also had in mind the Dallas-raised Newman's clever, cool, and subtle take on the burly "Texas tenor" sound made famous by such predecessors as Buddy Tate and Illinois Jacquet. And let's not forget Newman's prescient 60s and 70s recordings for Atlantic--their fusion of jazz and R & B anticipated the tone of much of the smooth and pop jazz of the 90s, but vastly exceeded it in quality. On his latest disc, Davey Blue (Highnote), you can hear the deep-soul splendor of his ballad playing when he pours his spherical flute sound into "A Child Is Born." And throughout the rest of the album his saxophone work displays a sophistication you might not expect from such a skilled funkster. His style never loses its whiff of east Texas barbecue, but introspective emotions lurk in his haunting alto tone and swaggering tenor. The mix of material on Davey Blue--gut-busting hard bop, jazz standards ("Freedom Jazz Dance"), a new calypso, an old jazz hymn ("Cristo Redentor")--proves that at age 69 Newman's as versatile as ever; onstage, he draws you in with his barreling blues work and holds you there with the twilight silk of his ballads. This time through, Newman will work with pianist Ron Perrillo, bassist Dennis Carroll, and drummer George Fludas, a threesome whose interlocking lines and clockwork polyrhythms are colored by Perrillo's inventive harmonies. They're an often exquisite rhythm section, one of the city's three or four best, and I can't wait to hear how Newman will react. Friday and Saturday, July 12 and 13, 9 and 11 PM, and Sunday, July 14, 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.

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