For a flutist, James Newton gets around. Earlier this year, he was in Niger's capital city of Niamey working on a project with the group Mamar Kassey, which is based around the traditional West African flute, the fulani.
"It was my first time in West Africa," says the well-traveled Newton, "and it was just an unbelievable experience. The poverty is overwhelming at times, but the thing that got me was the spirit of the people, those who were poor and those who were comfortable. They have a certain joy in their lives that's expressed in their music."
In addition to being a globe-trotting performer/composer who has won the best flutist category in Downbeat magazine's international critics' poll 17 years running, Newton has been a professor of music at UC Irvine for the past eight years, part of a distinguished staff that includes saxophonist/flutist/longtime Mercer Ellington associate Charles Owens; Dr. Art Davis (the bassist who recorded with John Coltrane); and Kei Akagi, the former Miles Davis keyboardist and current pianist in the James Newton Quartet.
As a composer, Newton has written more than a dozen commissions, both jazz and classical, in as many years for orchestras here and in Europe. An uncompromising jazzman who firmly believes in letting the music evolve on the bandstand, he promises to perform some of the pieces he wrote while in Niger when the quartet plays the Jazz Club in Founder's Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center this weekend.
"I'm always looking for the notes that people don't play, the ones that aren't supposed to be in certain chords," he says. "African music is very modal, so I'm now trying to fit modality back into my musical equation, even though, as a composer, I'm obsessed with harmony. The things I heard and felt in Africa have to be in the music. But I need time to consider the concept more, not only now that I'm back at home but also onstage. That's the great lesson of Miles Davis—when you learn to do it on the bandstand, you can believe it."
As a composer, Newton has arranged classics from Ellington, Mingus, Monk and others in his own quirky style. He has written involved jazz originals, penned chamber and symphonic music that's been performed across Europe and the U.S., and recorded his own electronic suite, Above Is Above All. An opera he co-wrote with Bay Area pianist and composer Jon Jang, inspired by vocal giant Paul Robeson and Chinese opera innovator Mei Lan-Fang, will premiere this June in San Francisco in a performance that includes members of the Beijing Opera. Some of that music, Newton says, will also be performed at Founders, albeit reworked for a jazz quartet. And along with some of the Ellington arrangements that won him jazz album of the year awards for his 1985 Blue Note recording The African Flower, he'll cover some spirituals.
"I've been thinking a lot about spirituals," he confides in almost repentant tones. "I'd like my next recording to be a collection of spirituals."
Born in Los Angeles and raised in San Pedro, Newton made the right connections early on. He studied with legendary sax/flute/clarinet whiz Buddy Collette and in the early '70s was part of wannabe drummer/now writer and social critic Stanley Crouch's Black Music Infinity, an outside ensemble based in Pomona that included current saxophone heavyweights Arthur Blythe and David Murray. It was during this time that Newton dropped his aspirations to be a saxophonist and began to concentrate on the flute.
In 1978, he followed Murray to New York and plunged headlong into the city's alternative jazz scene, joining pianist Cecil Taylor's big band. He began recording for the freethinking labels of the day, India Navigation and Gramavision, often with bassist Anthony Davis and cellist Abdul Wadud. His 1985 Gramavision release Water Mystery was an ensemble date that included saxophonist Owens, the late clarinetist/ composer John Carter and tuba player Red Callendar, as well as a harpist and koto player.
The African Flower marked Newton as an innovative arranger who could take classic pieces (in this case, the music of Ellington and Billy Strayhorn) and stamp it with his own image. His second Blue Note disc, Romance and Revolution, gave the same treatment to Mingus as well as gave the world Newton's Mingus-inspired tribute "Forever Charles."
Newton moved back to California in 1982 and became a fixture on the local scene. He taught at CalArts in Valencia and, in 1992, moved over to UCI. Soured on the record business, he began recording for smaller, independent labels, notably 1990's If Love on the short-lived JazzLine label, with pianist Michael Cain, bassist Anthony Cox and drummer Billy Hart, a disc that contains his tribute to one of his great inspirations, Eric Dolphy. His ambitious octet recording Suite for Frida Kahlo, a collection whose musical charge comes from a strong political stance, was released by Audioquest Music of San Clemente in 1994.
Newton plays an atypical instrument in an atypical way. He can perform easily with speed and crystal clarity, but he is also likely to augment his sound with trills, snaps of breath and vocalizations. Cool melodic lines give way to edgy flights of fancy. There's a certain muscle to his sound, something not usually attributed to the flute.
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"The important thing," he says about his instrument, "is to keep growing, to keep changing and evolving, and to be true to what's been given you. That is the best thing to give the people who come to listen. To be as honest as possible. I've never been one to fit in the mode of the times or the fads of the day."
The maverick philosophy carries over to his teaching as well. "Now that the music is moving out of the clubs and into the schools, something is being lost. Music is made of intellect, but also of spirit. Education is not just about notes; it's also about why these artists were compelled to be so original, about what inspired Jelly Roll Morton to create this new art form called jazz, or what drove Mary Lou Williams to develop different harmonies. As you develop a standardization of how music is taught, you feel the conformity creeping in. It's important that young musicians explore who they are and for them to be exposed to the whole gambit of the tradition, what's going on now, and not just stop with bebop.
"We've discussed my great inspiration, Charles Mingus, in classes, and the message is very powerful. He just refused to toe the line, politically, musically. He broke the rules of the day. That spirit of nonconformity is something I try to pass to my students."
The James Newton Quartet performs with Kei Akagi, Roberto Miranda and Sonship Theus at Founders Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787. Fri.-Sat., 7:30 & 9:30 p.m. $30 for 7:30 p.m. shows; $28 for 9:30 p.m. shows.