David ‘Fathead’ Newman ‘The Blessing’ (High Note) 4/5

david-fathead-newmanThe sadly departed multi-reed player David ‘Fathead’ Newman recently succumbed to a long-term illness. Fathead, as he was affectionately known, was an especially sought after sideman who was best known for his lengthy tenure as part of the Ray Charles orchestra during the late nineteen-fifties and nineteen-sixties, but equally cut a number of diverse albums for the Atlantic label. However, far from being a mere epitaph to a glittering career, this last recording catches the saxophonist/flautist at his most soulful with an excellent line up of the cream of New York musicians and recorded at the prestigious Rudy Van Gelder studio. It was always a difficult task to place Fathead into a convenient category for he was a highly versatile musician who could play blues, bop, Latin and even freer forms when required. This diversity in approach is reflected in the compositions on offer. A mid-pace version of the bossa classic ‘Manha de Carnaval’ features Yoron Israel providing a Latin-tinged feel on drums and vibist Steve Nelson reinforcing the percussive ambiance. in fact the piece merits comparison with the similar line up from tenorist Dexter Gordon on his seminal 1965 Blue Note album ‘Gettin’ Around’. Echoes of both Lester Young and Stanley Turrentine are conjured up on the Milt Jackson composition, ‘SKJ’ while the standard ‘Smile’ (co-composed by Charlie Chaplin!)is a showcase for the lovely guitar playing of Pete Bernstein. Newman is in fine form on the Gershwin tune, ‘Someone to watch over me’ and on the bluesy ‘Chelsea Bridge’. Perhaps the best, though, is saved for last. Jazz and the flute have sometimes been uneasy bedfellows, but Eric Dolphy and Roland Kirk firmly placed the instrumentation in the jazz tradition, and both Newman and Herbie Mann did a great deal to popularise the flute in a jazz setting. On the delicious ‘The Blessing’ Fathead delivers a terrific performance, as good as any from his sixties period. A fine way to bow out, then, and an album that will make for extremely enjoyable listening during the summer months and beyond.

Tim Stenhouse