That's "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].
Enjoy!