James Newton: Cotton Tail
James Newton (flute)
The African Flower (Blue Note 46292)
Anthony Brown (maracas and finger cymbals).
Arranged by James Newton. Composed by Duke Ellington.
Recorded: New York City, June 24-25, 1985
Rating: 96/100 (learn more)
James Newton's tribute album to the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, The African Flower, is memorable largely because, as did Ellington, Newton wisely used musicians with distinctly individual sounds to help make his arrangements both personalized and unique. You might say that altoist Arthur Blythe is Newton's Johnny Hodges, cornetist Olu Dara his Bubber Miley or Cootie Williams, and violinist John Blake his Ray Nance, with Sir Roland Hanna at times simulating the Maestro at the piano. On top of this, Newton's own vibrant flute and Jay Hoggard's incisive vibes add instrumental colors rarely present in the Ellington harmonic palette.
"Cotton Tail" was introduced in 1940 by the celebrated Jimmy Blanton-Ben Webster edition of Ellington's orchestra, and featured Webster's famous tenor solo and a riveting unison interlude for the saxophone section. The combination of Rick Rozie's persistent bass line and Hanna's spiky keyboard clusters precede the ensemble's theme reading, with Newton and Blythe energetically splitting the bridge. Blythe's extravagant solo is pumped by Rozie's race-walking bass, playing the Blanton role. The altoist's wide vibrato accentuates the high-pitched squeals and shrieks that pepper the many riffs and subtexts that he succeeds in assembling into a coherent whole over the composition's "I Got Rhythm" changes. Hoggard and Hanna follow in a sparkling duet that gravitates from call-and-response mode to contrapuntal engagement, with modernistic Hanna here sounding very little like Duke. Newton's flute solo is one of his best on record in a straight-ahead, no-frills context, his marvelous tone and ample technique bringing to life his inventive, lucidly streaming lines. The theme's recurrence ignites brisk fills from Blythe and Newton, and then a concluding exultant flurry from the band.
Reviewer: Scott Albin