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Groovin' Highmount 

click to enlarge David Fathead Newman plays the Bellearyre Music Festival on August 16.
  • David Fathead Newman plays the Bellearyre Music Festival on August 16.

The noted critic Gerald Early said, “I think there are only three things America will be known for 2,000 years from now when they study this civilization: the Constitution, jazz music, and baseball.” His is truly an epochal prediction (Early served as a consultant to Ken Burns on his documentaries Baseball and Jazz). Jazz keeps its stock value high by releasing diamonds from its inner core periodically, strewn on the Earth for all to see. One sparkler will be on view at this year’s Belleayre Music Festival on August 16: saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman.

Newman’s appearance at the festival coincides with other worldwide events centered on his 75th birthday (February 24) this year. His brazen Texas tenor tone has given body and soul to works by Aretha Franklin, Queen Latifah, B. B. King, Eric Clapton, and, most notably, Ray Charles. His 12 years with Charles gave Newman enough cachet for steady employment in jazz, R&B, and pop.

While on tour with saxophonist Buster Smith (a mentor to bebop icon Charlie Parker), Newman, whose main horn is alto saxophone, initially joined Charles in 1954 on baritone but later switched to tenor and doubled on flute. Newman gave Charles’s bands swagger and reams of energetic solos to riff behind. His debut album as a leader is Fathead: Ray Charles Presents David Newman (Atlantic) in 1958. In 2004, the life of Charles was put upon the big screen in the biopic Ray, which the singer did not live to see. Newman continues to refute his portrayal as someone who got Charles hooked on drugs. “I was bothered by it,” Newman lamented in a 2005 interview. “I understand that’s what sells movies. I could’ve done with more music and less sex and drugs. I actually would have liked to have seen more of Ray Charles and what he brought to the table.” A year after Ray’s 2004 premier, Newman honored Charles on his HighNote Records release I Remember Brother Ray.

Another lengthy stay was with flutist Herbie Mann—10 years. Newman also recorded for Mann’s label, Kokopelli, and released Mr. Gentle Mr. Cool in 1994 and Under a Woodstock Moon in 1996. Both recordings reflect the spiritual shift in Newman’s life from New York City to the Hudson Valley.

Newman has had a stable home life at HighNote since 1999’s Chillin’. His ninth release for the label is Diamondhead, on which two of his band mates for the Belleayre gig, pianist Cedar Walton and trombonist Curtis Fuller, appear. The other sidemen for the Belleayre show are also superb—bassist Rufus Reid, drummer Jimmy Cobb, and just added, saxophonists Joe Lovano and Jimmy Heath.

The Belleayre festival offers an appetizing plate of folk, rock, opera, classical, Broadway, dance, and “America’s classical music”—jazz. “Jazz has always been a major part of the festival, with four to five concerts each season,” comments Litoff. “We’ve been privileged to hear the greatest musicians in the world play—and Newman and Fuller are certainly among them.”

David “Fathead” Newman will perform at the Belleayre Music Festival in Highmount on August 16 at 8pm. (845) 254-5600; www.belleayremusic.org.

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