PHINEAS NEWBORN, JR: ‘A World Of Piano!’ (Craft Recordings/Contemporary)

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Despite being one of the most technically accomplished pianists to grace the jazz world, the prodigiously talented Phineas Newborn never became a household name. Great things had been predicted for him when he burst like a supernova on the US jazz scene in 1956 but his career, derailed by several bouts of mental illness, never fully blossomed. Even so, he released over twenty albums in his lifetime, including 1962’s superlative A World Of Piano!, now reissued on audiophile vinyl by Craft Recordings as part of the label’s Contemporary Records Acoustic Sounds Series.

Memphis-raised Newborn recorded for Atlantic, RCA, and Roulette before landing at producer Lester Koenig’s Los Angeles-based Contemporary label in 1961. A World Of Piano! was the first – and arguably the best – of five albums he recorded for the label during eight years with the company. For those unacquainted with Newborn, the record, which has been expertly mastered for reissue by the redoubtable audio engineer Bernie Grundman, functions as a superb introduction. 

A World Of Piano! captures Newborn fronting two different trios; side one finds him in the stellar company of Miles Davis alumni, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones, while side two is a productive hook-up with bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes, at the time both in Cannonball Adderley’s group.    

One of Newborn’s trademarks was playing parallel melodic lines with his left and right hands two octaves apart; the technique can be heard on the record’s exciting opener, a remake of Charlie Parker’s bebop staple, ‘Cheryl,’ which is rendered as a high-velocity swinger.  

More electrifying still is Newborn’s thrillingly energetic take on Dizzy Gilliespie’s Afro-Cuban classic ‘Manteca,’ powered by Philly Joe Jones’ syncopated cowbell figures on the intro before exploding into life.  Another uptempo track, a cover of hard bop trumpeter Clifford Brown’s ‘Darhoud,’ shows that Newborn never sacrificed melodic clarity and clean articulation during passages of rapid-fingered keyboard dexterity. 

Though some critics decried Newborn as a soulless technician – an accusation that deeply hurt the pianist and purportedly contributed to his mental fragility – his music was never lacking in feeling and emotion. Despite his penchant for flamboyant piano pyrotechnics a la his heroes Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, Newborn wasn’t always a slave to ostentatious ornamentation and could play with a simple gracefulness, as illustrated by his tender reading of Billy Strayhorn’s immortal ballad, ‘Lush Life,’ and the elegant jazz waltz, ‘For Carl,’ which begins simply before Newborn livens it up by unleashing a stunning fusillade of parallel octaves.  

Though a familiar name to the jazz cognoscenti, Phineas Newborn Jr is a tragically forgotten figure in the wider history of popular music. Hopefully, this exceptional, high-quality reissue will take this misunderstood and under-appreciated genius out of the shadows and into the light of broader appreciation. 

(CW) 5/5

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