UPDATE 14/9/20: Harry M photo – Elvin Jones, 1970
Some thoughts on piano jazz and the place of “piano artistry”, launched from another “inessential album”, the music of Phineas Newborn Jr. , who at the time was considered by some critics to be one of the greats. What happened?
Selection: Please Send Me Someone To Love
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Phineas Newborn Jr. ,piano; Ray Brown , bass; Elvin Jones, drums; recorded at Contemporary studios, LA, February 12 & 13, 1969.
Another day, another piano voice, and another fine pianist, but first – pronunciation lessons: Fine-Us, not Fin-e-as. Like it’s Cee-cil , not Cec-il Taylor.
Newborn was a traditional style jazz pianist who fell in and out of critical favour, as the benchmark for piano moved on to other planes.Tagged with the label of “piano artistry”, recorded mostly in solo or trio, Phineas was often saddled with cover art guaranteed to sink anyone’s career. The lady is in love… with the piano leg? The Solo Piano cover (Atlantic,1975) is just…I’m lost for words… who thought this was a good idea? Art Director, my office, now!
It gives Newborn a good cover, compensation for that horrid wooden sphinx.
The “We Three” session put Newborn in a stronger line-up, with Roy Haynes providing a rhythmic backbone and Chambers his own artistry. Phineas seems to perform better with the discipline of other front-line players: Sample from “We Three”, Newborn plays the Ray Bryant composition, Reflection.
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This one really swings. Newborn determinedly carrying the Bryant melody, Roy Haynes uncompromisingly lays down the beat; while Chambers lets them fight it out. Exciting, no hotel-lobby and chintz jazz here.
NYT: “During the middle and late 1950’s Newborn was widely regarded as one of the most brilliant pianists in jazz” Nat Hentoff wrote that “he probably has more command of the piano technically than any of his jazz contemporaries.” Leonard Feather said of him, “In his prime, he was one of the three greatest jazz pianists of all time”, in the league of Art Tatum and Bud Powell.
Between 1956 and the early ’60s, Newborn recorded for Atlantic, RCA Victor, Roulette, and Contemporary. It was his time, but… with the passage of time some critics turned on him, began to say his playing “lacked emotional depth and commitment, that it was too facile and flashy”.
His “dazzling technical proficiency” was perhaps too strong to place him in the role of sideman. He recorded just a few titles in quartet for Contemporary, with Howard McGhee and Teddy Edwards. The bulk of his work was recorded in trio and solo.
On this Contemporary tile from 1969, Ray Brown makes a valliant effort, counterpoint on the strings, but Elvin Jones sleepy, auto-pilot timekeeping (laid back?) fails to inject interest.
By 1969, perhaps the time of hotel lobby-and-chandeliers piano jazz had been and gone. Listeners demanded more ensemble complexity, more “emotion”, more diversity of influences, and fusion was knocking on the door. Solo piano virtuosity was no longer enough to carry the day.
One of the down-sides of being really good at something, at which you are doing your very best, is that you have no incentive to change, when change is what is required rather than further improvement.
Through the ’70s Phineas recorded just a handful of trio sessions. He became troubled, encountering mental health problems severe enough to require hospitalisation. A few titles were released only in Japan, but little else, until his final departure in 1989.
Vinyl: Contemporary S7622
Another example of how Contemporary used legacy label design – green gold print – on much later issues. LKS stamper codes – the stamp of Lester Koenig stamper authenticity.
Just a bit of fun, as I happened to have these two versions ripped. How does Newborn’s technical proficiency deliver a tune like Little Niles, squaring up against the composer’s original version, Randy Weston?
Selection : Phineas Newborn, from the same album: Little Niles,
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Contrast: Original Little Niles, Randy Weston:
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The Randy Weston original benefits from the greater tonal variety of a larger ensemble – better suited to the feisty tune. The trio reduces it to homogenous “piano artistry”, where everything begins to sound the same – piano trio jazz.
Maybe it’s just me, but piano trio rarely hit the spot, apart from few obvious exceptions, and solo piano hardly at all – apart from Monk – Alone In San Francisco, and Solo Monk – the later of which I seem to have missed posting. Solo Monk, for a future date, when i get back to my hi-fi. Monk solo is a whole different kettle of guacamole.There must be a few other solo piano outings that stand out of the crowd, though none come immediately to my mind. If you have piano-solo in your mind, throw it in.
Piano jazz put to rest, for the time being.
UPDATE: Harry M has the picture – Elvin Jones at Jazz Expo 1970
LJC says: thank you readers for all your comments. All sorts of artist suggestions I was not aware of, obviously something people feel passionate about, great!