NYC Jazz Record, Artist feature, January 2019
James Newton on the Trail of Dolphy. Again.
by John Pietaro
The specter of Eric Dolphy looms large and haunts indiscriminately. Some 55 years after his untimely passing, the global jazz community remains fascinated with this giant of the music, of conceptions far afield. Not the least among his followers is flutist and composer James Newton, who has always attested to Dolphy as the force that led him to the instrument. “Eric was and remains among the greatest of flute players. He understood the history, the future and global sounds, influencing everyone”, Newton explained, still happily under the spell.
‘Eric Dolphy-Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions’ (Resonance) is a project that James and JoAnn Newton labored over for several years. This three-CD (or LP) boxed set hit the bins in December to great fanfare. It stands as the first opportunity in 30 years for listeners to hear previously unreleased work, both as a stand-alone disc and in context of the two artful but overlooked Dolphy records, ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Conversations’, the products of the ’63 sessions. According to Newton, the project was inasmuch a labor of necessity as one of love: “It’s been a long journey for myself and my wife JoAnn. She’s a lawyer and helped with research and legal issues. She is also a great Dolphy fan—when we first met, that was one of the things that sealed the deal!”, he said. The commitment of both begat the final document’s fine details. “I have to commend Zev Feldman and Resonance Records for giving it such deserved dignity”. In addition to the three discs, the set is accompanied by a 100-page book filled with statements by Dolphy cohorts and the insight of a half-century.
In 1964, as Eric Dolphy embarked on what was to be his final performances, the European tour with Charles Mingus, he left a series of scores and reels of tape from his 1963 sessions with close friends Hale and Juanita Smith, for safe keeping. When the tragic news of Dolphy’s passing came, the pair quietly held on to this bounty for decades. Recognizing the need to have this music go public, the Smiths notified Newton, who immediately reviewed the find.
“The scores came first—the tapes a little later”, he explained. “Maybe four years ago we got permission from the Dolphy Foundation to donate the scores to the Library of Congress. Then the focus fell onto the recordings”. Newton explained that Hale Smith, a noted composer and educator, was one of his mentors. Following Smith’s death in 2009, Newton remains close to his widow. “If it weren’t for Hale and Juanita, this music might have remained on the shelf forever”. Like an earlier Dolphy discovery they shared with Newton, that which he produced in 1987 as ‘Other Aspects’ (Blue Note), the ‘Musical Prophet’ boxed set offers a new vision of the artist. “These recordings show us the crucial 1963-4 period where the language was just exploding in new ways”, Newton said. “I treasure these recordings. We chose only the strongest outtakes, the ones at the highest level, to honor Eric’s great heritage. That was our litmus test”. With this release, powerful and historic alternate takes of such titles as “Mandrake”, “Burning Spear”, “Alone Together” and the much revered “Jitterbug Waltz” are now available. The boxed set, in total, is analogous to a master class.
For James Newton, the master class began long ago. Although still in grade school at the time of Dolphy’s death, he embarked on a personal study while in his teens. Drawn to the instrument, he moved to the flute from electric bass, which he’d been playing in a Hendrix cover band. Newton became engaged in LA’s rich jazz heritage, that which was spawned by the Creole migration from New Orleans and Texas, thrived under the influence of master teacher Lloyd Reese and progressed through Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Chico Hamilton and Horace Tapscott. “Plus, we had Stravinsky, Schoenberg and William Grant Still, the impact of the film industry, and history of gospel”.
Newton, once immersed in the music community, was welcomed by the likes of David Murray, Bobby Bradford, John Carter and particularly Arthur Blythe. He also sought out serious tutelage. “Buddy Collette was my teacher (he’d been a student of Reese). I started with him at age 19 and it lasted about 15 years. Even after I moved to New York, whenever I’d come back to LA, I always took lessons with him”. Collette was not only an esteemed jazz artist, but a staple in broadcast and recording studios, offering a wide palette to his many students. “Buddy taught Eric, Charles Mingus, Charles Lloyd”. Frank Morgan, too. “He left an incredible imprint on me, like a second father”. Newton recalled warmly. “I had a very strong father but when he passed, Buddy kind of stepped in for me”.
After completing studies at Cal State LA, Newton joined Stanley Crouch’s Black Music Infinity and then made his recording debut in 1977. A year later he relocated to New York and founded the legendary trio with pianist Anthony Davis and cellist Abdul Wadud. “Oh man, that band was so much fun! When I look back on it, I’m reminded of the deep connection”. Newton was one of the celebrated young lions of the ‘80s, touring the globe with a wealth of artists. Since then, he’s recorded some twenty-five albums as a flutist and conducted his own compositions on others. After a left-hand affliction limited his playing, Newton began focusing exclusively on composition; his latest recording ‘the Manuel of Light’ was just released. “It’s a chamber work containing jazz influences and two versions of ‘Amazing Grace’, one dedicated to President Obama”. He’s also been hard at work on contemporary symphonic works, however, forays into the past have not ceased either. Surely not with respect to his first and greatest influence. “I’m so pleased to say that the world now knows more about Eric Dolphy than it did before”