I have no problem admitting I'm a Phineas Newborn dilettante. Even Stanley Booth, the author of the thorough, admiring, and extremely painful appreciation of Newborn that was my first exposure to the great pianist, wrote in that account that shortly before he met the man in the early '70s he "knew almost nothing about Phineas Newborn except that he was a jazz pianist whose records I'd seen reviewed in Down Beat in the '50s."
Booth's piece, entitled "Fascinating Changes," first appeared shortly after Newborn's death in the spring of 1989, in a quarterly musical supplement that was then being published in the Village Voice, in the days when someone of Stanley Booth's caliber would permit his work to be printed in the Village Voice. It is reprinted in Booth's 1991 collection Rythm Oil, an absolutely essential book for anyone with even just a passing interest in music, the United States of America, and good writing. In the book Booth prefaces the piece thus: "This piece was written before Phineas Newborn, Jr., died, but it ran in the Village Voice as one more obituary. I don't like it, as a poet once said, but I guess things happen that way."
Booth's account was of an extremely troubled, perhaps mentally ill individual, more or less at sea, who plays piano like an angel. It is an angry piece that weaves in threads of family history, Memphis history, observations on the various natures of the music business of the time, the vicissitudes of jazz critics (which Booth has very little patience for; after quoting a review of a Newborn set by one John Mehegan which takes it to task for a lack of "real jazz feeling," Booth writes "The absurdity of a white piano teacher from New York telling Phineas Newborn about real jazz feeling is delicious."
In any event, after reading Booth's article, I was kind of haunted by the oddity of the character that Booth had made out of Newborn. Booth's perspective was not that of a clinician but as a kind of privileged observer, and the mysteries in his story and Phineas' story are kept mysteries, and among the most troubling of the mysteries surrounds a beating that Newborn suffers at unknown hands for unknown reason not long after Booth first meets and hears the pianist. Booth also conjures the sense of a world that most of us will not, can not, ever know, and does this with some wry pique, as in this digression from a reasonably suspenseful and worrying narrative in the piece:
Leaving the Dickensons downstairs with Fred, who was saying, 'I have seen the time I could call six and have it come up, tell the dice what to do,' Susan and I went up to my office, sat on the couch and passed the time until we heard footsteps on the carpeted stairs. I looked around the door-jamb to see who was coming up and spied Fred on the landing. 'Where Junior?'
Insufferable Yankee editors have explained to me how offensive it is to quote Southerners speaking as we speak. Fred said Where Junior not because he didn't know it's correct to say Where Is Junior but because he knew I knew there wasn't time to say Where the fuck is Junior?
And of course I needed to hear some Phineas Newborn music. A little easier said than done. I was living in Manhattan at the time, in Murray Hill, and as far as I knew, the record store with the best-stocked jazz department at the time was J&R Music World downtown, then an altogether dustier and more cramped environment than it is today. Oh, yeah, and almost entirely vinyl. And even there, Phineas Newborn records were thin on the ground. So thin on the ground there were no "proper" Phineas Newborn records, that is, no solo piano recordings or accounts of him leading a group. No, there was only one record I could find featuring Newborn, this trio set on which drummer Roy Haynes is the first player listed and hence often credited as the leader, although it's not a "Roy Haynes Trio" record; We Three, originally released on Riverside's "New Jazz" imprint, as far as I can tell.
It's not a record with any kind of agenda; it feels as casual, maybe even "tossed off," as any record featuring three instrumentalists as accomplished and distinctive as Haynes, Newborn and bassist Chambers could be. Its opening cut is "Reflection," a tune by Ray Bryant, another underappreciated pianistic master of the Memphis baroque, but the first voice you hear isn't this session's keyboardist; no, the tune begins with the sweet thunder of Haynes' floor tom, I believe, rumbling with the clarity and crispness that has ever been the defining feature of his style; then the piano comes in, a bouncy, Latinish right-handed melodic theme with some unexpected forward somersaults, backed by a tricky hi-hat pattern (Haynes takes his own sweet time here before giving the snare one of his inimitable smacks) and some sneaky scale-climbing from Chambers. Then it's off to the races for Phineas, whose runs have an incredible fluidity and playfulness but also what I myself always took for not just real "jazz feeling" but real blues feeling. There's masterful technique here but also a bedrock love of the forms and conventions of what they're playing; call it authenticity, or organic-ness, or what you will; this is "down home" music in a very deep sense. It's also music that's mind-blowingly virtuosic in ways that you'd never necessarily process unless you were sitting down trying to process it, and the music always feels so good that you're hardly ever inclined to devote your listening time to parsing in that way. The album's centerpiece is a ten-minute-plus tour-de-force workout of Avery Parrish's "After Hours," which Newborn opens with a simultaneously knotty and very lowdown iteration of the theme, runs off a bit like it weren't no thing, twinkling the high notes multiple bars before breaking off with an exclamation point or a wink. Then he'll slow down and breathe in and out a couple of cool chords. The bassist and the drummer provide what appears to be mere comfortable, confident support, pick up the tempo to take things for a stroll, and on it ambles; it isn't until you really start picking the thing about that you notice in sections of the jam each player is in a different time signature; it's all so in the pocket you'd never suspect a contrivance of that sort.
It's all just pure pleasure as it fills the room, and I guess that's why this apparently not particularly historic session has grown through the years into one of my favorite, if not my absolute favorite, records. I don't entertain the whole "desert island disc" question all that often, but when I do, We Three is always a very strong candidate. I've never been in a situation or mood, good or bad, where putting the thing on didn't do something to improve things. I've listened to a good deal more of Phineas Newborn's music since then, and of course Haynes' Out of the Afternoon, an actual historic session featuring Roland Kirk on reeds, Tommy Flanagan on piano, and Henry Grimes for heaven's sake on bass, is and ever shall be an all-time fave too, and I don't suppose I need to start on Paul Chambers' other work (played bass on Kind of Blue, you know...three years prior to this)...but still, We Three has a big hold on me. It's a remarkably joyous record without being particularly sappily demonstrative about it; and of course it only represents a particular moment of creation, an afternoon in Hackensack, N.J., at pioneering jazz recordist Rudy Van Gelder. Chambers was all of 23 years old at the time; in 1969, after struggles with alcohol and heroin, he would die of tuberculosis. Newborn was 26, and just a couple of years away from his first stay in a mental institution. Haynes was the eldest of "we three," 33; he turned, if I can believe my eyes, 86 this year, and is still playing; he made an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman in June of this year.