Music » Music Lead

Keeping the Faith

Avant-garde flutist James Newton shares Duke Ellington's belief that music is like a conversation with God.


The Tri-C JazzFest's tribute may be the biggest, most thorough, and most innovative Duke Ellington celebration in the country. In this centennial anniversary of Ellington's birth, Cleveland already has seen some real departures from the obvious tribute fodder--most notably the performance of A Drum Is a Woman and My People, two Ellington pieces seldom heard in a concert hall since the man's passing. The JazzFest may have made its most inspired choice when it picked flutist, composer, and scholar James Newton as artist-in-residence for its Ellington spring. At first glance, the avant-gardist may seem like an unusual choice, but closer inspection reveals a cutting-edge musician whose connections to Ellington are as profound as they are subtle.

Newton, an agile contortionist of a musician with an uncompromising musical vision, emerged in the turbulent '70s. Swing had gone out to pasture, and Newton's generation was reveling in the aftermath of New Thing pioneers like Coltrane, Ayler, and Coleman. Newton found his own inspiration in the ebullient, fierce solos of multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy, in the overblowing and vocalizations of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and in the deft integration of free and arranged jazz of Charles Mingus.

But as accomplished as Newton is as a jazz flutist and composer, his interests roam well beyond the genre. He's shifted his weight in the direction of classical music on more than one occasion, including an upcoming recital with the Cleveland Chamber Orchestra. And on his latest album, Above Is Above All, Newton has stretched his body of work in yet another direction. He temporarily abandoned the acoustic context he's worked in all his life and delved into the electronic and funk experiments of Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix, tempering the new sound with influences as diverse as hip-hop and contemporary composer Toru Takemitsu.

In the suburbs and downtown streets of greater jazzland, these musical endeavors may seem about as far removed as you can get from that Ellington Heights swing. Nevertheless, the flutist knows his Ellington. Though his musical invocations of the Ellington avatar may not always scream "Duke, Duke, Duke!" to the casual listener, Newton has internalized the man's music and his musical philosophy. While Newton's music remains essentially and idiosyncratically his own, Ellington still hangs in the air like a presence--especially in music as superficially distant from Ellington as the classical concerts or the electronic music. Mingus, Dolphy, and Kirk may be the musical models, but Duke has always been a model in spirit for Newton.

Take, to start with, Newton's upcoming classical recital, a performance of his Suffering Servant II. The recital pairs him with the Cleveland Chamber Orchestra, not exactly the most swinging outfit in Cleveland. The piece takes its text from the Old Testament, Isaiah 53, and was based on a small chamber work Newton had previously written (thus, part II). Written for non-improvising musicians, the piece is not technically a jazz work. So, where's the Duke?

"Some people might ask, 'How does it relate to Duke Ellington?'" Newton says. "For me, it does in many ways. First of all, Ellington transformed or transfigured what's known as the dance band, big band, or jazz orchestra."

Ellington had ambitions greater than the confines of the dance band, and so he pushed at the walls, poked holes in them, let other sounds in. Ellington bent the music to his will, and not the other way around. With Servant, Newton may not be trying to emulate Ellington's music--though he admits that some of the things done "don't sound all that different from the Far East Suite"--but Ellington's jazz-based, chance-taking, genre-bending musical outlook is certainly present. In writing the bassoon part, Newton kept the jazzy, sonorous sound of the tenor sax in mind. It gives the classical piece a jazz feel and lets the listener know where the composer was coming from: a jazz context.

"It will sound more like a classical piece than a jazz piece," Newton says. "But you can tell that the person who wrote the piece is informed by the jazz tradition."

Servant also puts Newton's spirituality in the foreground, just as many of his other compositions and recordings have. It may not come up in many magazine articles, but spirituality forms an essential part of Newton's music and is his impetus to compose and perform, just as it was for Ellington.

It was during official Tri-C JazzFest business that Newton came in direct contact with Ellington and his faith. In preparation for this year's JazzFest, Newton traveled with Tri-C JazzFest organizers Willard Jenkins and Lisa Stewart to the Smithsonian archives. While Newton was off chasing music, Jenkins and Stewart investigated some of Duke's writings, which they later shared with him. "[Stewart and Jenkins] found [in the letters] many discussions on God and faith. Ellington was a man who enjoyed the world--he was a bon vivant, you know. But he loved God. I think that, when you look at his life and you look at his Sacred Concerts, more and more it became necessary for him to express his faith in God."

A burgeoning faith later in life inspired Ellington to compose and perform his three Sacred Concerts--music he considered his greatest achievement, though most critics routinely overlook it. At this point in his career, Newton shows a similar mindset. "I think I would rather talk about faith, commitment to God, and belief in God more than anything else. In my mind, my function, my way of speaking, is supposed to be as a musician. If I were to do almost all sacred music, I certainly wouldn't be sad, because that's what I want to do."

Certainly, Newton finds a kindred spirit in the same Ellington who wrote, "Every man prays in his own language, and there is no language God does not understand." And pray in his own language Newton does--especially on his latest album, Above Is Above All. The densely electronic, almost entirely pre-programmed album drew funny looks and pointed questions, even from fans of the flutist's most challenging acoustic music. "Most people, when they heard that record, thought that I was crazy," Newton says. "They said, 'What is this guy doing dealing with funk and electronic music, when he's been an acoustic musician all his life?'"

For Newton, spirituality in music is complicated in practice, yet straightforward in concept: Speak to God as best you can. As Duke said, every man prays in his own language, and for Newton, the finding and refining of that language is a very serious thing. It means constant striving, constant innovation, and always stretching the range and scope of his own idiosyncratic, musical voice.

For Newton, God's creation is a big, complicated place, and it demands music that tries to be that big. "I think a lot about the interconnectedness between all of God's creation, about the power of connecting with God, of praying to Him and trusting in Him. I think about all that there is out there in this universe and other universes--all of that creation, and all we're seeing is such a minuscule part. Why can't art reflect the vastness of what exists? It's a thought that really makes me want to move music forward. That's exactly what Above Is Above All is about," he says.

But just as Newton's music reaches forward, it stretches in other directions. It reaches out to other cultures and musics, while at the same time grounding itself in the African-American experience. Duke was hip to this notion back before jazz got much respect at all. As soon as the serious critics started to notice Ellington, a few tried to compare him with composers they considered serious, i.e. European classical composers. This comparison inferred that Ellington had moved up from the folk-and-dance music triple-A ball into the majors. Duke's response was salty swift: "A black man feels [a] black man's music most, and that's what I want to write. My aim is not only to make jazz. It is to make new, unadulterated music expressing the character and the moods of the Negro."

"The beautiful thing about that statement," says Newton, "is that there's nothing exclusionary in it. [Ellington] embraced all economic, racial, and cultural backgrounds, but he's saying, 'I have great pride in my culture. I have great pride in my African roots.'" The musical philosophy fueled many of Ellington's great works, everything from Black and Tan Fantasy to the Afro-Eurasian Eclipse. It also underpins Newton's music--especially his latest recording, on which he condenses hip-hop beats with Pygmy musical influences and the modern influences of Wayne Shorter and Witold Lutoslawski into a tight, vertical chronology of dance- and African-derived musics. It's as if hip-hoppers, African drummers, '70s funksters, and a few select contemporary classical composers all got down at the same house party, and it makes for one strange scene. In the album's liner notes, Newton goes on with his bad, Ellingtonian self: "The world of Above Is Above All is the world of the African Diaspora. This music is also informed by Asian and European music, but its heart is African."

This spring, Newton will collaborate with Eric Gould for a concert and sit in on a jam session at 6 Street Under, but if you want to catch him at his Ellington best, come hear his New Jungle Book concert at the Tri-C Metro Campus on April 22. For the show, Newton will be rearranging music from Duke's Jungle period (from the 1920s to the '30s) and performing them with top modern jazzers like Regina Carter, Don Byron, Marcus Belgrave, and Billy Hart. As Ellington did with his own orchestra, Newton plans to write out individual parts for the performers that "fit them like a glove."

Among the many elements the concert may feature, a turntable artist is likely to take part. As far as Newton's concerned, Duke's music can handle the update. "The music is so huge, so broad, so gigantic that it's going to take centuries before the music is disseminated," he says. "You can do so much and still stay true to the spirit of the music. It's still evolving through time."

James Newton's classical recital performed by the Cleveland Chamber Orchestra. 4 p.m., Sunday, March 7, Cory United Methodist Church, 1117 East 105th Street; 8 p.m., Monday, March 8, Drinko Auditorium, Cleveland State University, 2001 Euclid Avenue, 216-987-4400.

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