Tuesday, April 06, 2010

David Newman “Mr. Fathead”

This long-lost vinyl oddity unexpectedly turned up recently on CD thanks to Wounded Bird, the label with the best memory for forgotten 70s jazz. This one is particularly surprising to make a CD appearance as it is probably one of the late saxist’s least known records and, sadly, one of his slightest. But any Fathead is good Fathead.

David “Fathead” Newman had just ended a long reign on the mighty Atlantic label (1958-74), while gigging with Ray Charles, Herbie Mann and fitting in many sessions to boot. The year was 1976 and jazz had definitely changed. For those jazzers looking for crossover appeal, disco was now the medium and the message felt quite a bit less meaningful than jazz had ever known before.

Newman made only two albums for the Warner Bros. label, this one and Front Money the following year. Of the two, Mr. Fathead is the least successful and the most obviously geared for crossover success, much like some of the albums Stanley Turrentine was putting out at the time on Fantasy.

Fathead, as expected, makes the most out of his own originals. “Ebo Man,” co-written with pianist Arthur Jenkins (who sounds uncannily like Richard Tee here), is a funky delight with a Blaxploitation groove. Newman helms it all on flute, which is always a distinct pleasure.

“Mashooganah” – a variant spelling of the Yiddish word meaning “crazy person,” which Newman probably meant affectionately for his friend and long-time producer Joel Dorn - starts off in a style reminiscent of “Goldfinger” (long a favorite of the saxophonist’s and one he finally recorded in 2005 on his Cityscape album) with Newman elucidating with electric elocution on tenor sax. He then launches into a fiery funk jam of near epic proportions, complimented remarkably well by Pat Rebillot’s storming clavinet solo.

Newman spins a fair amount of gold out of the soulful “You Got Style,” the Ralph MacDonald/William Salter composition first heard on the 1975 Kudu album Upchurch/Tennyson (featuring flautist Dave Valentin on percussion!).

From here on in, it’s a little by the book – or for the books. Newman comes back to the tenor for Bill Fisher’s “Shiki,” a sexy soul number that suggests those Marvin Gaye ballads of the early 70s. He switches to alto for a speedy cover of Orleans’ then-popular “Dance with Me” (surprisingly utilizing Ron Carter on bass and Don Um Romao on percussion to near anonymous effect) and a cover of the Ralph MacDonald/William Salter song “Promise Me Your Love,” originally performed by Margie Joseph, that suggests the Grover Washington, Jr. productions Ralph MacDonald would helm several years later.

The out and out disco songs are a little too obviously meant for commercial consumption. But, regardless, are the least successful of the lot. There’s Newman on practically backgrounded (!) soprano sax for the overly chaotic “Groovin’ to the Music” and then he returns to the flute for the overly arranged and too-fast take on The O’Jays’ “I Love Music” (a slight admission: Newman plays particularly well here and the groove is appealing, even though it’s far too fast to dance to).

David “Fathead” Newman would leave Warner Bros. in 1977 to record three more crossover albums for the Prestige label before returning to his “jazz” roots in the early 1980s. Few of these albums have huge amounts of memorable music (Front Money is an exception), but like the best moments on Mr. Fathead, there’s surely a few diamonds in the ruff.

You can’t totally drown that Fathead personality. But Mr. Fathead comes a little too close for comfort.

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