Calvin Newborn

Calvin Newborn
New Born

Yellow Dog Records 1159

By Karen Nugent
September 2006

It’s fitting that Calvin Newborn recorded his latest album at the same Sam Phillips studio in Memphis where he did his first recording in 1950, backing B.B. King along with his talented father and brother, Finas and Phineas Newborn. In fact, it was B.B. who helped the young Calvin pick out his first guitar.

Now in his seventies, Calvin Newborn’s new disk features a seamless blend of eight jazz and blues originals, with his superlative guitar work shining through, especially on the third track, “Newborn Blues.”

Although the disk is basically jazz, there are enough bluesy riffs, and one song - the above-mentioned “Newborn Blues” - to make it work for all but the most ardent blues purist.

Accompanied by greats such as Donald Brown on piano, Herman Green on saxophone and flute, Charlie Wood on organ, and Scott Thompson on trumpet, and backed by London Branch on bass and Renardo Ward on drums, Newborn tries to give equal treatment to his dual lifework of blues and jazz. He is also joined by Ekpe Obioto a Memphis civil rights activist who channels ancient spirits with his “talking drums.”

Songs like “The Streetwalker’s Stroll,” and his mellow interpretation of the jazz standard “Lush Life,” reflect his pre-drug rehab days, while “Newborn Blues” and “After Hours Blues” show off the bluesy side of the Memphis scene.

His jazz lineage is also showcased in “Blues and Beyond” and “Spirit Trane/Omnifarious” - the latter an up-tempo shuffle with some wailing horns.

The new disk, appropriately called New Born, comes more than a decade after Calvin beat a drug habit that was spinning out of control, and after the 1989 death of his brother, a jazz legend in his own right who was eventually diagnosed with mental illness and ended his days living in a halfway house and a veterans’ hospital.

Their father, a drummer, dropped dead of a heart attack in 1965 after sitting in with Calvin’s band at a Los Angeles nightclub.

Calvin himself finally checked into a mental health facility in Memphis, got treatment for his drug problem, and then proceeded to write a book about his brother and cut his first record on his own Omnifarious label.

On this record, the songs “Restorations” and “When Kingdom Comes/Sho’ Nuff” seem to have emerged from his reformed outlook on life.

Besides the disk, which was recorded last year, Newborn is also working on a book about his friendship with Elvis Presley, and a documentary film about his fascinating family’s history.

Check out his outstanding work. It’s about time this unsung hero of Memphis blues and jazz got some recognition.

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