Thursday, February 2, 2012

David "Fathead" Newman: Tough, Texas Tenor


© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“It's always been a mystery to me why Da­vid "Fathead" Newman isn't one of the most popular instrumentalists of the second half of the twentieth century.

He's got the intellectual chops to play be-bop, ballads or blues with a backbeat and with feeling, creativity and authority. He's got more taste than most living musicians; his sparse obbligatos behind Ray Charles on the magnificent live version of "Drown In My Own Tears" should be required listening for anyone licensed to carry a horn.
When he plays a note with the unique Texas tenor tone, every cell in my body comes alive.

That Texas tenor sound is a phenomenon in itself. David, Don Wilkerson, Booker Ervin, James Clay, King Curtis and Wilton Felder were some of its major exponents to emerge in the fifties. As different as their styles were, they shared a rich, hard, vibrato-less sound and a clear, deliberate articulation.

The sound is strong, sure and prideful, but with an underlying vulnerability. It's pas­sionate. … Cannonball Adderley described it as ‘a moan inside the tone.’ …”
- Michael Cuscuna, 1997


“When I was coming up in Dallas, all the older guys, especially the saxophone players, had a big, wide-open sound.”
- David “Fathead” Newman


“The Texas tenor sound and concept is very much unlike, and in advance of, the Coleman Hawkins of 1929 and beyond. It is a more fluent, more melodic and blues tinged approach, perhaps more elegant, too.”
- Günter Schuller


During an interview with him, I once asked Orrin Keepnews, who for many years was the proprietor and co-owner of Riverside Records, why he labeled the album he co-produced with Cannonball Adderley for David “Fathead” Newman and James Clay, The Sound of the Wide Open Spaces [Riverside RLP 1178; OJCCD-257]?

“Because,” he said, “ like Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, Bud Johnson, Buddy Tate, and a bunch of others, David and James seem to have the same compelling Texas moan in their tone.”

Even now, after all these years, when I listen to the music of tenor saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman, it always calls to mind Orrin’s phrase – “a compelling Texas moan.”

In his notes to David’s recording entitled Resurgence, which along with Still Hard Times has been reissued on CD as David “Fathead” Newman: Lone Star Legend [Savoy Jazz SVY 17249], Michael Cuscuna offered these insight on the Texas tenor sound, David Fathead Newman’s relationship to it and the salient features of David’s career up to when these recordings took place for Muse in 1980 and 1982, respectively.


© -  Michael Cuscuna, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The legend and aura surrounding Texas saxophonists is clearly based in fact. Whether from Houston in the south or Dallas-Fort Worth in Central Texas, that state has spawned an array of impressive artists for generations, all toting a hard veneer and a soul that can em­brace the world. Only listening can reveal the bond that links Herschel Evans, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, Booker Ervin, Wilton Felder et al.

A geographically genetic genre. An oral tradition and a testament to environment.
Consider the dramatic differences between David Newman, James Clay, King Curtis, and Ornette Coleman, all within a couple of years of the same age, all in Dallas-Fort Worth revolving around the band of the legendary saxophonist Red Connor in their teens.

Dig beyond their obvious stylistic differences, and you will hear the same voice, the same cry, the same bending of the note, the same powerful, but vulnerable sound.

On one end of the spectrum in the forties was Ornette Coleman, the oldest of the bunch. Red Connor would often scold or fire him for memorizing and perfectly executing Charlie Parker solos, an exercise that Connor felt to be uncreative. On the other hand was King Curtis (Ousley), mastering and crystallizing the rich blues and R & B tradition, but snubbed by Connor and the Beboppers of the day. History would vindicate men as their visions focused and their contributions became irrefutable. Fusing both extremes and all the riches that lie in between were men like David Newman, a master who has yet to receive his due.

Still in his teens, David built a strong repu­tation around Dallas before going on the road with Lowell Fulsom and T-Bone Walker, a road that rarely led far beyond the borders of Texas. He was playing alto and baritone saxophones at the time. He and Ray Charles had crossed paths on several occasions in the early fifties. When Charles put together a permanent working band in 1954 with the effective instrumentation of two trumpets, two saxophones and rhythm, he recruited Texas tenorman Don Wilkerson and David Newman, playing primarily baritone, but occasionally doubling on alto. A year later, Wilkerson left. David was offered the tenor saxophone chair. Of course, he accepted the new position and the new instrument. And the rest, as they say, was hysteria.

David's solos, obligate fills and ensemble voice were stunning testaments to the art of R & B. His understated, soulful creations matched the essence of Ray Charles perfectly. Charles recorded a couple of instrumental al­bums that featured Newman's talents. The band's repertoire was beginning to include pieces by James Moody, Horace Silver, Max Roach and Milt Jackson.

By 1958, Memphis-born Benny Crawford, primarily a pianist and alto saxophonist, se­cured the baritone saxophone chair with the Charles band, bringing into it his own ideas and sound. A few months later, Detroiter Marcus Belgrave would assume one of the trumpet chairs. In July, the Ray Charles band would perform (and record) at the Newport Jazz Festival. In November, at Ray's instigation, Atlantic would record the first album by David Newman with the Charles band of the time mi­nus the second trumpet. And that meant David on alto and tenor, Crawford on baritone (and contributing three tunes), Belgrave on trumpet, Ray Charles himself on piano, Edgar Willis on bass and Milt Turner on drums.


In 1959, Charles added Leroy Cooper on baritone sax, freeing Crawford to return to alto saxophone. In the process, he changed his first name to Hank and affirmed his own startling identity. He too began recording for Atlantic, maintaining the essence and style of that orig­inal Ray Charles instrumentation throughout his ten year stint with that record company. On the first three albums (1960-62), he used the band minus Charles intact. And that meant more opportunities to hear David.

But for David Newman, any outside activity after his first album seemed to be an oppor­tunity to break away from the Charles mold. In 1960, he recorded a straight-ahead date for Riverside with James Clay and his second Atlantic album. Although Marcus Belgrave con­tributed a tune, the setting was strictly quartet with Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Charlie Persip, a clear statement of hard-core jazz. His third album schizophrenically offered a hard bop quintet with Belgrave on trumpet and a funky, blusier quartet with Crawford at the pi­ano and Ray Charles' bassist and drummer.

In 1964, David left Ray Charles' orga­nization, which had been since 1960 a full-fledged and less personal big band. He gigged locally around Dallas and turned his attentions to his family in its crucial years. By 1967, he began commuting to New York. By this time, he was playing soprano sax, as well as alto, tenor and flute. He re-established his ties with Cedar Walton, who was his pianist on local Dallas gigs when they were both still in their teens. He also re-established his relationship with Atlantic Records.


In March, he made his first album in five years, using a Texas guitarist who had recently migrated to New York. His name was Ted Dunbar, and that was his first recording session. The tune that drew attention to the album was one that Walton had just given to him, when they were working out on a friend's piano. It was "To The Holy Land[Recorded on the 1967 House of David Atlantic LP 1489]." A month later, New­man and Walton would appear together on a Lee Morgan session for Blue Note, recently released as "Sonic Boom."

Throughout the late sixties, David continued to record a succession of albums under his own name and appear on dates led by organist Don Patterson, Lonnie Smith, Shirley Scott and Charles Kynard. After rejoining Ray Charles briefly in 1970, he became a member of Herbie Mann's Family of Mann, a vehicle that allowed his tenor saxophone and flute work to shine and allowed him to contribute to the band's book of compositions as well. It was this band that first recorded "Davey Blue."

Although he left Mann in 1974, David continued to record albums of his own for Atlantic (and its sister label Warner Bros.) until 1977. He did studio work for the likes of Aretha Franklin, Cornell Dupree, Nikki Giovani, T-Bone Walker and Ben Sidran and made oc­casional live appearances. But David's em­phasis shifted back to Dallas during the late seventies except for three heavily arranged albums for Prestige that were misguided in the sense that they obscured the identity of the man whose name appeared on the record cover.

In the summer of 1980, David arrived in New York and transcended his shyness, call­ing all his old friends in town to announce his presence and his availability. We all responded with delight, and many things grew out of it. Among them is this record date, his first pure effort in years. The cast featured old associates, including Hank Crawford who came to the ses­sion with "Carnegie Blues" freshly written and tucked under his arm.

There could not have been a more appropriate date to record this album than September 23, the birthdate shared by Ray Charles and John Coltrane. Welcome back to New York, “Fathead.”

It had been my plan to use the 1967 version of To The Holy Land from The House of David Atlantic LP as the audio track on the following video tribute to David “Fathead” Newman, but WMG had other ideas and muted the audio when the video was uploaded to YouTube.

So instead we turned to the 1980 version of the tune Michael references in his notes to the Resurgence LP with David on tenor sax, along with Marcus Belgrave on trumpet, Ted Dunbar on guitar, Cedar Walton on piano, Buster Williams on bass and Louis Hayes on drums.



And if you are in the mood for contrasts, with the help of the crackerjack graphics team at CerraJazz LTD, I also developed another video that shows actual images of The Holy Land, in this case, Jerusalem, with a big band version of Cedar’s tune for the sound track as provided by the Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw. Peter Beets does the solo honors on piano.