"Fine Ass," not "Finny Us"
It's tragic that so many of us who have grown to love jazz got so little encouragement to
pursue it while we were sweating out our pre-adolescent piano lessons. As our short legs
dangled above the floor from that hard, wooden bench, and our ears tuned in to the
stultifying tick of the metronome instead of to the exciting mysteries of the keyboard, we
missed out on the subtle tempi of the heartbeat. And we missed the ebb and flow that, in
part, constitutes "swinging."
The definition of that term is elusive, but I'm satisfied it has something to do with
native, rather than acquired, talent. Some of us intuitively understand the concept of the
triplet, or the shuffle rhythm or syncopation. Others of us have to unlearn our habit of
producing literal performances of sheet music because, rather than following our hearts,
we follow the too-often inadequate inky marks of the copyists who produced the blueprint.
That may be workmanlike, but, like the metronome, it isn't swinging. And, as the Duke
constantly reminds us, "It don't mean a thing if ...."
Because the heartbeat is such a personal thing, small ensembles are my favorite jazz
combos because they are intimate, and the chances of a clash of personal rhythms decline
in direct proportion to the number of players. If we take that as a standard, the most
swinging musician is the soloist, whose talent must carry the day. Naturally, we are most
likely to find unadorned, album- or concert-length performances by pianists because of the
opportunities their instrument provides for a range of musical effects: melody, multi-part
harmony, counterpoint and rhythm.
One of my favorites for about 27 years has been a 1974 Atlantic release, "Solo
Piano," by Phineas Newborn Jr., for the simple reason that he swings in the way that
all the great jazz pianists swing -- intuitively. Some of my friends out there on the
Internet won't have heard of Newborn, but others are nodding knowingly to be reminded of
an old friend they haven't thought about in a long time. Newborn was mysterious AND
swinging and, therefore, hip. And his fans have pursued their own brand of hipness,
because those in the know are fond of pointing out to pretentious jazz neophytes that his
first name is pronounced "Fine Ass" and not "Finny Us," just as fans
of traditional New Orleans jazz laugh into their fists when an inexperienced musician
announces "Burgundy Street Blues" without accenting the second syllable of
"burgundy" or fails to pronounce the first word in the title of "Milneburg
Joys" as "Millenburg."
Newborn's work is in a direct line of descent from the great jazz pianists, and his
hard-to-pigeonhole style is result of his synthesis of the musical influences he
encountered during his eccentric career. He cannot be defamed as a mere imitator, because
his approach was so original, so hip so ... swinging. But an attentive ear will decode all
the major musical signals in his work: here is the ragtime of Scott Joplin, there the
stride of Fats Waller, downstairs the boogie-woogie of Memphis Slim, upstairs the swing of
Count Basie, around the corner the transitional bop of Thelonious Monk. Other pianistic
influences abounded: Bud Powell, Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson, Albert Ammons, Willie
"The Lion" Smith and James P. Johnson joined a host of unknown other ingredients
in the stewing pot that was Newborn's talent.
And his influences were not confined to pianists. He did various stints with the likes of
Lionel Hampton, Charles Mingus, Roy Haynes and Paul Chambers and expanded the range of his
natural creativity during his exposure to these heterogeneous voices.
But something was amiss with Newborn, and nobody has quite figured out what it was, which,
of course, has added to his mystique and, sadly, to his slow slide into obscurity. When,
in 1956, he arrived in New York from his native Tennessee, the critics were kind and the
fans enthusiastic, so that it seemed he was off to an auspicious start in the big time. He
capitalized on that friendly send-off until sometime in the mid-1960s, when he seemed to
drop out of sight for extended periods of time. There is talk of recurring mental and
physical problems, combined with some mysterious accidents.
The result was that, from approximately 1965 until his death in 1989 at age 57, his
recordings appeared only on the most scattershot basis. The appearance of the
aforementioned "Solo Piano" was a treat precisely because Newborn had begun to
lose his footing in rocky and shifting terrain of the average jazz fan's esteem.
Yet, for all the whipsawing of his reputation for nearly a quarter century, his work
remained tasty, adventurous and relevant, and his persona carried a mystique usually
reserved for such stubborn and often difficult personalities as Miles Davis and Thelonious
Monk. His periodic re-emergence worked a strange effect on me, usually expressed as,
"Newborn has another one? Great! Where's he been, anyway? I thought he died."
Then, one day he did and his legacy was locked in time.
"Solo Piano" appeared in 1974, when the airwaves stank of the malodorous disco
and, lamentably, some of the lighter-weight pop tunes were making their way onto the
playlists of jazz greats who were desperately trying to salvage a more broadly based
audience from a populace which, during that awful decade, appeared to have turned away
from guts and toward glitz. It was in those horse latitudes between 1969, when his
previous album, "Please Send Me Someone To Love" [Contemporary] appeared, and
1975 when he released "Solo" [L&R Music], that "Solo Piano"
captured my loyalty, though it is not without its flaws.
For example, following a fine, but too brief, slice of "Together Again,"
"Serenade In Blue" is coupled with "Where Is The Love?", the latter a
tune that had added annoyance to its ubiquity and shortcomings as a solid composition a
couple of years prior to Newborn's use of it. Another criticism is the brevity of the
album, which clocks in at just fewer that 36 minutes, even though it features 11 cuts,
four of which are two-song medleys. The longest cut at 8:38 is a two-song performance that
grafts "Everything I Have Is Yours" onto "Giant Steps," followed in
duration by a 6:56 version of "The Midnight Sun Will Never Set."
These are quibbles, I suppose, because, for the most part, the music is glorious and
showcases Newborn's many virtues in bite-size portions that always leave me a bit hungry
after I've finished the meal. And that's why this is a sentimental favorite of mine.
Phineas left me wanting more, like any good showman would.
For a sampling of Newborn, here are some representative recordings, all of which, like
"Solo Piano," are still in print:
"Here Is Phineas," [Koch, 1956]; "Phineas' Rainbow," [Victor, 1956];
"A World of Piano," [Contemporary, 1961]; "The Great Jazz Piano of Phineas
Newborn Jr.," [Contemporary, 1961]; "The Newborn Touch," [Contemporary,
1964]; "Harlem Blues," [Contemporary, 1969]; "Please Send Me Someone to
Love," [Contemporary, 1969]; and "Back Home," [Contemporary, 1976].