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David Fathead Newman

Carl B. Taylor Community Auditorium
Schenectady County Community College
Schenectady, NY
April 8, 2008

By J Hunter

Where David "Fathead" Newman ranks among past guests of the Empire Jazz Orchestra is up for grabs, given who's appeared with the EJO in the past – Randy Brecker, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, Slide Hampton, and other Hall-of-Famers too numerous to mention. I guess it all depends on what part of jazz history you revere the most. The thing is, Newman's resumé touches on almost all of jazz' modern era: I first heard Fathead with Herbie Mann's wild post-Memphis Underground group Family of Mann, and that was many years after Ray Charles gave Newman his first big break. Almost thirty years after Newman played dueling flutes with Mann, Fathead is still cranking out top-notch recordings like I Remember Brother Ray (High Note, 2005).

But we'll come back to Newman in a minute. Let's talk about the EJO, which is one of this area's major treasures. Aside from the fact that the Orchestra's work – both on disc and in concert – is consistently excellent, some of the region's hottest players are (or have been) members of the EJO. I counted five acknowledged leaders and a handful of established sidemen as the Orchestra took its seats for the first set of the evening. That set would be all theirs; Newman would join them after Intermission.

Bob Halek literally kicked things into gear as the EJO pounced on Oliver Nelson's "Daylie's Double." Halek's drum kit was the orchestra's engine as three rows of monstrous players built a lovely attack that gave equal space to nuance and power. Although most of the first set's solos were relatively short, each one was a tasty morsel: Steve Lambert and Brian Patneaude acquitted themselves very well on Benny Carter's "The Legend"; Terry Gordon and Keith Pray really jumped to it on Johnny Richards' Birth of the Cool-esque "Dimples"; SCCC faculty member Peter Bellino stepped to the front of the stage and blew cool flugelhorn on the Henry Mancini Latin-Jazz piece "Dreamsville"; and percussionist Mark Foster's switch from congas to vibes put an electric spin on Don Menza's "Time Check."

As music director William Meckley himself acknowledged, there were more than a few people in the sold-out auditorium that were there to see Colleen Pratt; they got their wish midway through the first set, as the blonde songstress stepped onstage in a black almost-knee-length dress that sparkled at the hem. In the Big Band spirit, Pratt got her own three-song mini-set, filled with the same classic material that drove I Thought About You (Nova, 2007), which earned Pratt and the EJO international acclaim. She was in great voice, demonstrating her own sense of nuance on "Too Close for Comfort." Unfortunately, the Orchestra's power got the better of the soundman, and Pratt's vocals nearly got lost in the sauce on "Cheek to Cheek" and the Sinatra standard "The Summer Wind."

One look at Newman's wardrobe – black beret, black shirt, black pants, black shoes – and there would be nothing you could say except, "That's a jazz musician!" Not only did Newman look the part, he played it, too.  Like James Moody – another septuagenarian multi-instrumentalist – Newman hasn't lost a step: His tenor on set-opener "Keep the Spirits Rising" was deep and strong, framed perfectly by the EJO's mighty collective voice; Newman's alto on "Cristo Redentor" – inspired by the statue that overlooks Rio de Janiero – was sweet and evocative, and it had real snap on the encore "Hard Times"; and his flute on the "Caravan"-like "Pharaoh's Gold" was as hypnotic as it was back in the Family of Mann days.

You'd expect playing with an artist like Newman would inspire the EJO, and you'd be right. As great as their normal game is, the Orchestra kicked it up a few notches more. The breaks Pray and Patneaude played on "Cousin Esau" was right up there with some of their best leader work, and Jack Fragomeni bulled through his own sound-mix issues to give "Pharaoh" some hot hollow-body action. For all that, though, you could see this exemplary unit inspired Newman as much as he inspired them, and the set was all the better for it.

As much as I loved this show, what I loved even more was that the audience was dotted with current members of the SCCC music department (some of whom referred to the EJO's leader as "Mister Meckley"). They got to hear some outstanding performances, from Newman and from some SCCC faculty and alums. But more importantly, they got to hear jazz at its best – being played by people who live it and love it.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.