September 2000

Phineas Newborn, Jr. - Harlem Blues
Released: 2000

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

[Reviewed on CD]When the names of the great jazz pianists are bandied about, one name rarely, if ever mentioned, is that of Phineas Newborn, Jr. And that, from the evidence of this disc, is tragedy. Newborn had as much talent and imagination (and when able, mental agility) as anyone this side of Art Tatum. As a matter of fact, a case could be made that the only contemporary of Newborn’s who could be said to be his equal would be Oscar Peterson (who is as widely known as Newborn is neglected). It’s unfortunate that Newborn never had all that many opportunities to showcase his tremendous talent, due to physical and mental problems that precluded his doing much recording. His legacy consists of a mere handful of albums. What a joy, then, that JVC has decided to reissue Harlem Blues in its XRCD2 collection.

Harlem Blues puts Newborn in the company of bassist Ray Brown and drummer Elvin Jones (talk about being surrounded by musical equals!). It’s a collection of both uptempo tunes, such as the title tune, "Ray’s Idea" and "Cookin' At The Continental," as well as slower ballads such as "Sweet And Lovely," "Little Girl Blue," "Stella By Starlight" and "Tenderly." These give Newborn, Brown and Jones a chance to strut their stuff, and what a jaunt it is. One word of warning: Like Art Tatum, Newborn’s ability sometimes tends to overshadow that of his cohorts. Listening attentively will reward you with some of the best interplay between musicians since the Bill Evans/Scott LaFaro/Paul Motian trio. Brown, who is the ultimate accompanist, purrs along beautifully underneath Newborn’s piano -- always tasteful, always supplying just the right note at just the right time. Jones, who learned how to command attention while playing with John Coltrane, almost steals the show with his explosive, powerful, yet always appropriate drumming. Yet, in the end, it’s Newborn’s stage, and he makes the most of it.

Listening to him as he opens this disc with his composition "Harlem Blues," one gets a full appreciation for what’s in store. Newborn starts the tune off with a stride opening line with the boisterous energy of a tent-revival meeting. Then, he "strides" off into an exploration of whatever muse was leading him that day. When Brown and Jones join in, the pace picks up considerably -- and what a sermon these three preach! Or, check out the opening to "Stella By Starlight" and hear how classical music influenced Newborn’s style. Brown opens the song "Tenderly" with a wonderful bass solo that showcases his superb talent in a way rarely heard since he recorded Way Out West with Sonny Rollins. Jones is always there -- percolating along, driving the music, prodding Newborn to new creative heights.

If you like this disc, you’ll be pleased to know that there is a companion recording made at the same time, called Please Send Me Someone To Love. Unfortunately, you’ll have to search it out, as it is out of print. From listening to Harlem Blues, I would say it would be well worth looking for.

Since Harlem Blues is an XRCD2, sound plays almost as big a role as the music. Two words sum it up here: home run! This album was originally recorded by Contemporary Records, who almost always did a superb job in the recording studio. Having a good master tape to start with, JVC put their XRCD2 process to good use and gave us a wonderfully lifelike-sounding disc. Newborn’s piano is spread, front and center, between your two speakers with Brown’s bass in the left channel and Jones’ drums in the right. About the only quibble I have with the sound is that the drums are confined to the right speaker. There isn’t enough spread to allow you to follow Jones as he pounds away at the various drums in his kit. He almost sounds constipated. But this is a small problem, as you can always hear everything Jones is up to -- every cymbal splash and drum beat comes through clearly.

Dynamic swings on the album are very good, right up there where they belong. Brown’s bass is always there, underpinning the music with subtle force. JVC has given the bass full-bodied heft, as well as string sound that is never obvious in its tunefulness. But it’s Newborn’s piano that is best served by this disc -- which should come as no surprise, as this is his album. You can almost feel like you’re looking over his shoulder, thinking right along with him as he makes his musical decisions. The hammers hit the piano strings with percussive accuracy.

Harlem Blues, as released in JVC’s XRCD2 process, offers us a chance to hear Phineas Newborn, Jr. to full advantage. While I’m saddened that there is so little of Newborn’s music available, I’m heartened that we have this disc at least to showcase his talent. Finally, maybe, Phineas Newborn, Jr. will have his name enshrined in the pantheon of great jazz pianists. Lord knows, it’s been a long time coming.