James Newton is still best-known for a remarkable series of jazz albums recorded in the 1970s and 1980s, when the flutist was aligned with fearlessly creative musicians like Arthur Blythe, Henry Threadgill, David Murray, Amina Claudine Myers, Anthony Davis, and Abdul Wadud. In order to forge a unique voice on his instrument, Newton drew inspiration from the effusive bird calls of Eric Dolphy; his virtuoso solo recitals, such as Axum and Echo Canyon, are in a luminous category of one.
The American jazz critics appreciated the work of Newton and his community. The high-end Gramavision release I’ve Known Rivers by Newton, Davis, and Wadud was a talking point of the era. Newton’s debut on Blue Note, The African Flower: The Music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, won DownBeat’s album of the year in 1986.
This exposure didn’t last forever. In the late ’80s, the lights dimmed on experimentalists like Newton as Wynton Marsalis spearheaded a popular neoclassical movement of “Young Lions.”
It was a difficult time. Some decided that the new swinging bloods represented a return to sincere values and that the experimentalists were of interest only to college students; others claimed that the avant-gardists embodied the lived wisdom of the blues and dismissed the new swingers as conservative drones. A flamboyant personage of this era was critic (and recently honored NEA Jazz Master) Stanley Crouch, originally a friend and supporter of musicians like Newton and Murray, who then switched sides to become the biggest champion of Marsalis. Many younger jazz practitioners now see the music as a continuum that can contain anybody who is sincere in their art, but there are those who have never forgiven or forgotten.
Newton might have become less visible since those days, but he’s kept growing. It’s a trajectory like no other. I can’t think of another person who made so many classic jazz records before investing so deeply in the process of writing fully notated classical music squarely in the European tradition.
Being that kind of composer is a lonely process. Newton has done the work, and his latest recording is thoroughly satisfying. The Manual of Light (Orenda) is a survey of Newton’s chamber music from the last decade, along with two lush orchestral deconstructions of “Amazing Grace” inspired by Barack Obama.
While the “Grace”s are lovely, hard-charging abstractions for classical virtuosi make up the meat of the album. This is explicitly religious music, created alongside Newton’s major works of the same period: “Mass,” “Saint Matthew Passion,” and “Psalm 119.” Two obvious references are the florid effusions of Olivier Messiaen (someone also important to Eric Dolphy) and the sacred work of Mary Lou Williams. The pianist Yegor Shevtsov has recorded Pierre Boulez pieces with élan, so naturally he’s a perfect choice for three intense, discontinuous monologues. Solo works performed by trumpeter Daniel Rosenboom and harpist Alison Bjorkedal are similarly illuminating. A stirring work for five strings, “Elisha’s Gift,” is the album’s centerpiece.
The overt jazz and black-music references in The Manual of Light lurk far beneath the gleaming modernist surface. Those elements are something Promethean in the composer’s subconscious, part of a synthesis that includes everything from Maurice Ravel, Hale Smith, and Charlie Parker to all kinds of world music. Perhaps only a proficient jazz musician could conceive of how these melodies flow next to each other, but the way the scores look on the page is profoundly un-jazz, and that’s absolutely the way it has to be.
One word for Newton’s sound might be “Afrofuturism,” but the moment I put that down is the moment I know it isn’t quite right. His music isn’t good for a hashtag or a movement. It’s just for music. All Newton wants you to do is listen.