Life

At 74, DAVIDFATHEADNEWMAN may no longer raise the hair on the back of your neck when he tears off a tenor sax solo, but the force of his tone—comfortable, assured, sturdy, Texan—remains undiminished. LIFE (HighNote) is of a piece with the Corsicana-born reedman’s other recent work: It is uneven, rather pedestrian in song choices, and surprisingly evocative at unexpected moments. Two sidemen, the fluid guitarist Peter Bernstein and the brilliant vibraphonist Steve Nelson (who isn’t given nearly enough to do), enliven this session. Newman, who sounds more like Paul Desmond than the Ray Charles R&B shouter of old, has mellowed, but the ideas still flow. On a song as tired as “Autumn in New York,” he finds creative spark, while his Miles Davis–style restraint on “Old Folks” is a thing of beauty. That said, the flute songs are a snooze, and, c’mon—“What a Wonderful World”? Given Newman’s past triumphs, it’s hard not to expect more. To be fair, the laid-back vibe here is somewhat by design; the set is dedicated to the impressionistic pianist John Hicks, who died last year. And it’s all redeemed by a happy ending: an unusual and meditative reading of Coltrane’s “Naima.”

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