From The Archive: Fín-uhs

Josh Rutner wrote to remind me of this Rifftides piece that ran nearly five years ago. When I exhumed it from the archive, I discovered that digital gremlins had stolen the subject’s picture and destroyed some of the links. The staff has restored the post, and that’s reason enough to remind us all of this wonderful pianist.

March 3, 2008

Phineas Newborn, Jr.For weeks, the CD reissue of Phineas Newborn, Jr.’s 1961 album A World of Piano! has been propped up near my computer as a reminder to post something about him. It is neither his birthday (December 14, 1931) nor the anniversary of his death (May 26, 1989), and no recently discovered Newborn recording has been released, but we need no special occasion to remember his astonishing talent.

Because he was sporadically troubled by emotional instability, Newborn’s career was spotty. He never got the recognition his virtuosity might have brought him if his health had been on an even keel. Still, from the time the young man from Memphis debuted with Lionel Hampton in 1950, musicians and informed listeners were aware that he was a phenomenon. He made a splash in New York in the mid-fifties when Count Basie and the producer-promoter John Hammond gave him a boost. He worked in a duo with Charles Mingus and played with the bassist on the soundtrack of John Cassevetes’ celebrated art film Shadows. His recordings on RCA, Atlantic, Roulette, Steeplechase, Pablo and a smattering of other labels remain available and sell steadily if modestly. Few serious jazz pianists are without Newborn shelves in their collections.

Through the ’60s and ’70s he recorded a series of albums for Contemporary, at first as a sideman with Howard McGhee and Teddy Edwards, then four under his own name. Concord Records, the custodian of the Newborn Contemporary CDs, has allowed several of them to drop out of the Original Jazz Classics catalogue. Some of them have resurfaced as imports and may be found, along with other Newborns, at this web site. It would be difficult to go wrong with any of them. There are, as far as I can determine, no Phineas Newborn albums worthy of fewer than four-and-a-half stars out of five. You will find his complete discography here.

A few clips of Newborn playing with the monumental bassist Al McKibbon and drummer Kenny Dennis have shown up on You Tube. They all seem to come from the Jazz Scene USA televison program hosted by Oscar Brown, Jr., in the early 1960s. If you’re unfamiliar with Newborn, try “Oleo” for an introduction to the piston-perfect technique of his fast playing and “Lush Life” for proof that his harshest critics were wrong when they accused him of being without feeling.

As for the pronunciation of Newborn’s first name, it has been solidly established by family and close friends that he preferred “Fín-uhs” (as in “finest”).

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  1. says

    Phineas Newborn was a particular favourite of TV host/ personality David Frost and can be seen on YouTube and elsewhere in clips from programmes associated with Frost. Billy Taylor, Frost’s MD on the ‘David Frost Show’, was said to be the first black MD for a major US TV show and some clips come from that source.

    Phineas can also be found in clips on the ‘Ellington on the internet’ weblink site, but that doesn’t seem to be easily searchable:

  2. says

    Thanks for reminding me that Phineas Newborn Jr.’s recordings are still around. I agree wholeheartedly that he should not be overlooked. I have had a couple of the Newborn CDs on the Contemporary label and especially enjoy his versions of Nellie Lutcher’s “He’s a Real Gone Guy” and “Black Coffee,”not to mention the title track “Please Send me Someone To Love”. It doesn’t hurt that the the bass player and drummer on the date were Ray Brown and Elvin Jones.

    The other CD was A World of Piano that included two rhythm teams: Paul Chambers and Philly Joe.. and Sam Jones and Louis Hayes. Listen especially to “Juicy Lucy”, “For Carl” and “Cabu” on that one. Great stuff.

    And, finally, thanks for including the correct pronunciation of his first name. He was, indeed, the “finest.”

  3. Garry Brisbane says

    A World of Piano! should be in everyone’s collection. Phineas with Sam Jones and Louis Hayes on one side and the flip side with Mr. P.C. and Philly Joe. Wonderful !!!!

  4. says

    I heard him in February 1964 at the It Club in LA. He had Dupree Bolton, Frank Morgan, Harold Land, Eddie Mathias and Philly Joe Jones with him. They opened with WEE DOT about 90 mph and it got better! A truly memorable evening.

    i think the Atlantic album is his best. Not everything is top shelf, but when he was great, he was really great.

  5. Terence Smith says

    Speaking of the “Jazz Scene USA” video, You-tube also currently has video of Phineas in Memphis, later in his career, performing Horace Silver’s “Juicy Lucy” with I think Rufus Reid and Alan Dawson. It too will confirm the need for the “World of Piano” CD version! Also, Doug R’s link does not seem to include the two Steeplechase CDs made in Stockholm, 1958, with Oscar Pettiford, Benny Bailey, and others. I’m sure it’s in the discography. The audio may be less good, but these rank with maybe anything else for their extended high level of inspiration.

    The above article is most appreciated. Phineas Newborn need only be more heard to be more appreciated.

  6. Terence Smith says

    As Doug Ramsey notes, everything Phineas Newborn recorded is great. For that reason I was looking carefully at the great discography in the link above. I’m pretty sure I have remembered an obscure Phineas not listed in the discography. Many years ago a friend was playing me the vinyl LP, Ray Charles at Newport. I think it was the one recorded by Atlantic in 1958, not the later one. My friend and I were particularly relishing the incredibly soulful Ray Charles piano as featured on the album, when we noticed that when Ray switched to alto sax, another pianist was sitting in, and said pianist was doing the impossible of seemingly out-Raying Ray! We looked at the fine print on the LP, and the other pianist was Phineas, Newborn, Jr. I do not have the LP, but if memory serves it has moments that are a testament (one of so many) to Phineas’ ability to convey incredible feeling.