James Newton: Music Album Review for Flute
In late 1984, James Newton climbed through New Mexico’s Carson National Forest, near where Georgia O’Keeffe lived, to play the flute amid the din of crickets and the chirping of birds. . He recorded himself using energy generated by a motorcycle battery. Newton “thought of the flute as an instrument found in all cultures of the world”, he said. The resulting album, echo canyon, captured long strands of improvisation bouncing off the rock around him, forming walls of sound that seemed equally ancient. In the years that followed, Newton continued to use the flute as a probe to sting the sublime. He started laying the groundwork years earlier, in his solo debut flute musicreissued this year for the first time since its release in 1977.
Newton tries different structural frameworks for his instrument throughout flute music. On the opener “Arkansas Suite (Bennie)”, he multitracks it in two minutes of floating chorus. An ephemeral architecture forms: as one layer rises above the others, those below support its exploration of melody, or its slow glide into a single sustained note. It sounds like a summons, emphasizing the closeness of the flute to the human voice. There is no overlay on the second part of the song, “Arkansas Suite (Solomon’s Son)”. Instead, Newton hemmed his flute with the help of a harpsichord, the metallic sound of which held the flute’s wandering back like a huge wire cage for a rare bird. He uses percussion on “Darlene’s Bossa” along the same lines, letting his flute embroider the song’s steady samba rhythm. These structures provide a sort of anchor for Newton, a ground he can use to contrast the airy freedom of his flute.
The most exciting moments on flute music occur when Newton is fully unbound. “Skye” begins with martial drums and chimes that at first sound like drawn swords. They fall silent when Newton’s flute emerges as a calming force, forcing the percussion to order itself. With the addition of guitar, bass, and percussion embellishments, Newton lets the song unfold like a changing landscape watched from a train window. He adjusts his playing so that the tone oscillates between mournful and restless, his breath irregular and ragged one moment but clear and full the next. On the album’s B-side is “Poor Theron,” an 18-minute free-jazz experience. Jingling bells, trombone bursts and long piano riffs often completely replace Newton’s flute; when it comes back, it sounds like a scream.
The penultimate track on the disc is a version of the jazz standard “Sophisticated Lady” by Duke Ellington. Where singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday imbued the song with complicated feelings of nostalgia and boredom, Newton’s take is sterile and eerie, the only track on the record that features nothing next to his flute. Newton’s career is dotted with other references to pioneering artists, including an ensemble tribute to Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, and, later, Frida Kahlo. Looking back on his early days, it’s clear that these influences would figure into his goals as an artist and innovator of jazz itself – to discover how to push the expressive limits of his instrument as close to transcendence as possible.