Phineas’ Hour (June 2nd, 2018, Columbia, MO)

I’ve spent the afternoon luxuriating in the music of two brothers from Whiteville, Tennessee (and always associated with Memphis), pianist Phineas (pronounced FINE-us by his family but eventurally FIN-ee-us by the artist) Newborn Jr. and guitarist Calvin Newborn. The elder brother’s command, invention, precision, and speed on the 88s was such that critics still battle, as they’ve done with other keyboardists, over whether he was a purveyor of mere (mere?) technical facility or an artist of abiding soulfulness–the latter requiring a treacherous, possibly arrogant and presumptuous leap for the listener to make. As much as I’ve listened to music, I’m not at all convinced that I listener can accurately gauge “soul”; I mean, I can say for certain how it makes me feel, but if soulfulness exists in the musician as he plays, how would I ever know, and precisely what aspects of the recorded evidence indicates whether it did or not–and why do they? As for the younger Newborn, one has to dig a little to hear him in his exuberant youth, then in his prime, as he was usually an accompanist, and versatile and flexible enough to thrive in any setting, especially (maybe) when he was asked to play a discreet musical role. Only some thirty years after the advent of his recording career did he become a solo artist, and by then his best work may well have been past him. Suffice it all to say that he was one of jazz’s most underrated guitarists of the ’50s and ’60s.

You can think about both questions–of Phineas’ soulfulness and Calvin’s unjust obscurity–on the records I listened to today, combined on one CD by Jazz Beat Records: 1956’s Here is Phineas–The Piano Artistry of Phineas Newborn, on Atlantic, and 1958’s Fabulous Phineas, on RCA. The brothers play together on both releases (more so on the later) and furnish plenty of evidence to support my claims that the feeling, knowledge, and ideas behind Phineas’ playing = soulfulness, and that Calvin, coming out of Memphis blues and southwest jazz, was a force to be compared with the likes of Pee Wee Crayton and even (lightly, hoss) Wes Montgomery–particularly in his ability, honed through sibling battles and the oversight of their drummer father, to stick with Phineas even at his fleetest and highest.

As a bonus, enjoy the masterly rhythm sections on both, the Atlantic session featuring Kenny “Klook” Clarke and Oscar Pettiford, the RCA Denzil Best and the Newborns’ childhood friend and long-time musical cohort, George Joyner (each pairing, drums and bass, respectively).

Short-shrift Division:

I mentioned this a few pieces back, but if you love the above, you’ll want to try this very, very, very unsung set from the same basic period, as it features a mess of smokin’ Memphis players, most of him are from the Newborns’ cohort.

Up for some very entertaining and enlightening music lit you’ll have to search, then pay for?

I suggest this. (Price range on three used copies currently for sale on Amazon: $125-150–I didn’t pay half that much, so you might set your bobber out on the pond, if you know what I mean.)


‘xcuse me while I plagiarize my Goodreads review:

This hard-to-find book is a classic of Memphis culture. Newborn and his brother Phineas Jr., both skilled multi-instrumentalists–the latter one of the greatest jazz pianists of the latter half of the 20th century–rise up through the Memphis’ rich musical soul, then ride a rollercoaster through regional and national tours, professional recording sessions, the Armed Forces, night life in New York and Los Angeles, and struggles with substance abuse.

Note: the book is not particularly professionally assembled. Misspellings and typos abound, a chapter number is skipped, three blank pages leave the reader in a state of mystery, the index is in alphabetical order by first letter ONLY, and the photo section is slopped together at the very end of the book. HOWEVER, it is also chock-full of great stories, the author’s mischievous wit, insights into mid-century African-American life in a very complicated city, charming candor, delightful idiosyncrasies of narrative…and the slopped-together photos are GREAT. I paid a pretty penny for a copy, and I do not regret it in the least (though I would like to know if EVERY copy has the blank pages).