David “Fathead” Newman, known for his gritty, Texas tenor solos with the Ray Charles band of the 1950s and ’60s, is also a compelling, sexy ballad player, as this album, his eighth for HighNote, reiterates. He begins the album with Neal Hefti’s “Girl Talk,” an insinuating performance with plenty of room between phrases and the hippest of downward glissandi at the end of certain notes. This is one of four tenor saxophone tracks-“Alfie,” Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” and John Coltrane’s “Naima” are the others-and Newman puts his sly, cool, bluesy stamp on each. On “Naima,” which rides on an inviting drum groove, he shows that you don’t have to imitate Coltrane to score spiritually on one of his tunes.
Working with a tasteful, George Shearing Quintet-like rhythm section, Newman benefits from arrangements and colors that give the album classiness beyond a blowing session. Vibist Steve Nelson, guitarist Peter Bernstein, pianist David Leonhardt, bassist John Menegon and drummer Yoron Israel are his well-attuned accompanists. Solos are short and melodic, but you never get an impression of constraint or malaise from these players.
“Old Folks” and “Autumn in New York,” a couple of alto performances (alto saxophone was Newman’s first instrument) bridge bebop and Texas earthiness. Three flute tracks-the title cut, “I Can’t Get Started” and “What a Wonderful World”-radiate the kind of blues feeling that has made him the most soulful flutist in jazz. The title track, an original waltz, is a tribute to the late John Hicks, the pianist on five of Newman’s HighNote albums. Here, Newman employs a vigorous attack, exotic trills, rangy arpeggios, blues-tinged runs and a ripe vibrato to tell his story.