Phineas Newborn Jr.

One of the most brilliant jazz pianists to emerge in jazz during the 1950s, Phineas Newborn, Jr. (1931-1989) was plagued by mental and physical problems during his career. Despite his erratic life, however, he recorded many rewarding albums.

Newborn began his career playing in Memphis-area r&b bands, often with his brother, the guitarist Calvin Newborn. He recorded with B.B. King in the early 1950s, worked with Lionel Hampton and Willis Jackson, and served in the military. Newborn arrived in New York in 1955 and was soon amazing listeners with his technique (which was comparable to that of Oscar Peterson) and his creative solos. Other than brief periods with Charles Mingus and Roy Haynes (with whom he recorded We Three for New Jazz), Newborn spent his career leading trios and quartets.

Most of Newborn’s early recordings were made for Atlantic, Victor, and Roulette, but Contemporary was his exclusive label in the 1960s. The Great Jazz Piano Of Phineas Newborn, Jr. and A World of Piano, from 1961-1962, are two of Newborn’s finest moments on record as he really digs into the material, showing off his vast technique but also displaying sensitivity and constant creativity. Although The Newborn Touch was the pianist’s only recording of the 1963-1968 period, he still displays remarkable control of the piano. Harlem Blues and Please Send Me Someone to Love were recorded during two days in 1969, but this matchup with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Elvin Jones is as successful as Newborn’s earlier dates. The same trio is reunited for 1976’s Back Home, and Brown helps out (along with drummer Jimmie Smith) on Newborn’s lone Pablo release, Look Out—Phineas Is Back, also from 1976. The pianist might have been suffering from health problems, but that is impossible to ascertain during his playing on “Abbers Song” from the latter disc, a rapid runthrough on the “I Got Rhythm” chord changes.

Phineas Newborn, who lived to be only 57, is still considered one of jazz’s greatest pianists.