29 JAN 12 ANNE FARNSWORTH
One of the unsung heroes of mid-century jazz piano is Phineas Newborn, Jr. Back Home, his trio date with Ray Brown and Elvin Jones, is among the best.
Newborn's descent into relative obscurity was due to emotional and physical maladies that developed as his career was in full flower. Battling alcoholism, he spent time in California's Camarillo Hospital, a mental health facility whose other famous patients include Art Pepper and Charlie Parker.
Newborn Jr. came from a musical family. Father Phineas Newborn Sr. was a prominent Blues drummer and brother Calvin was a well-known guitarist (son Phineas III is an up-and-coming actor). Newborn started his career playing R&B in Memphis, he and his father played on B.B. King's first album as a leader. Those roots would make him a natural leader in the hard bop movement of the early '60s but his sensitivity, classical-level virtuosity and the influence of Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson make him too complex of a player for any one genre.
Back Home is a prime example of Newborn's stylistic range. "Love For Sale" begins with a chorus-long solo intro full of Peterson-like soli glissandos and asides before introducing the rhythm section with a McCoy Tyner-style ostinato and then swinging so hard and tight you'd think you were listening to Bud Powell. The emotive ballad, "Pamela" showcases Newborn's left hand stride under a bluesy melody.
Although his star has faded a bit in the eyes of the general public, Newborn Jr. continues to be an inspiration to the younger generation of jazz pianists. The Contemporary Piano Ensemble, a quartet of young jazz piano lions, James Williams, Harold Mabern, Mulgrew Miller and Donald Brown, recorded an homage to Newborn in 1990 called Four Pianos For Phineas. It's a fitting tribute to a man whose stellar work deserves a wider audience.