Updates on James Newton and Misha Mengleberg

The You Tube score-scroller is a good invention. How wonderful to have a bevy of new uploads from James Newton.

Newton is hard to explain in a word or two. After establishing himself as one of the most celebrated of jazz flutists (his Blue Note LP African Flower was Downbeat’s record of the year in 1986), he transitioned to work as a full-time formal composer. Unlike many jazz-to-classical composers from his peer group such as Henry Threadgill and Anthony Braxton, Newton’s scores are fully written out in the European tradition and do not require an orchestra to engage with improvisation or graphic notation.

Of course, many great black American composers were solely concerned with notation; two of my favorites are Ulysses Kay and George Walker. However, the industry seems to prefer black composers to engage with improvisation. Perhaps if Newton had been fulfilling commissions with scores featuring a rhythm section and open sections then his music would be programmed more often.

At any rate, Newton’s choice to switch careers at midpoint from jazz soloist to formal composer has obscured matters. It’s high time for him to be more visible to anyone concerned with American Music writ large. When I finally discovered his music I felt a key turn in a lock.

In some ways Newton recalls Mel Powell, who played jazz with Benny Goodman before writing formal scores in the Milton Babbitt mold. However, Powell kept all his swinging Benny Goodman language at bay when sitting with a pen to write chamber music. Newton does not follow the model of Powell’s splintered psyche; instead, Newton lets in all of his life experience. The tropes of jazz, especially avant-garde jazz, give Newton’s formal music an exceptional melodic freshness and spontaneous joy. There’s really nothing else like it.

I’ve championed Newton twice before, with an interview at DTM and also an article in JazzTimes. Perhaps the score-scrolling videos will also do something to get the word out.

Violet is perfect for a score-scroller. Two marimbas are running in parallel lines and dyads, an unusual synchronicity for chamber music, but a recording on its own doesn’t give the visual cue the way a live performance would. There’s something African about these sounds, but that obvious cultural borrowing doesn’t stop this American composer from fully embracing modernism. Eric Dolphy (who studied Edgard Varèse and Olivier Messiaen in addition to Charlie Parker) would have loved this score.

Paul Griffiths gave Violet a rave review in 1998 for the New York Times.

A more recent piece from 2014, Elisha’s Gift, is taut and charismatic. Again, watching the counterpoint unfold helps clarify the precision of the composer’s intention. Just awesome.

I’ve embedded these videos, but by all means go over to Newton’s new channel, hit a few links, and teach the algorithm to promote these beautiful pieces, or at least grant him a little more searchable edge against his “competitor” James Newton Howard. (!)

After playing the Bimhuis in Amsterdam last week with the Billy Hart quartet, I left with a wonderful object.

Mishakosmos: Misha Mengelberg Music Book is a big volume of all sorts of themes, from graphic notation to lead sheets to a fully notated fugue, superbly edited by Michael Moore. It is available from ICP; the relevant page has more information and a nice quote from Uri Caine.

DTM obituary: The Great Mengelberg.