James Newton: Axum (ECM 1214)

 

 

James Newton
Axum

James Newton flutes
Recorded August 1981 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Composer, flutist, and conductor James Newton is about as renaissance as renaissance men get. Currently a professor in the Department of Ethnomusicology at UCLA, Newton seems always to be looking for ways to expand his knowledge. And while his command of repertoires may be staggering, a humble primacy of the body has ever been at the heart of his activities. Breath, movement, and time trace zones of sonic blossoming in his music, to the point where one cannot help but visualize the bodywork of his many recorded performances. Out of a discography going on 60 albums, we might point to 1982’s Axum, his only for ECM, as a seed. Its fantastic range of colors comes together in an enduring piece of sonic archaeology.

Half of the album is drawn from overdubbed territories, where bass and alto flutes share the air with their concert cousin. Within the first minute of “The Dabtara,” we already get a sense of Newton’s idiomatic breadth, as flickers of modern jazz blend into a backdrop of medieval piping. Thus does Newton find unity in division. Among the more mirthful turns is “Addis Abada,” which sounds for all like some form of worship through which one breaks from the self on the way to belonging. Another turn of the kaleidoscope brings into focus the title track, a veritable symphony of multiphonic splendor. “The Neser,” however, is the most accomplished here. With a Debussean elegance fringed in shadow, Newton hangs every melodic intention in the air like some vast ornamental mobile turned by forces unknown.

The five solo pieces constitute more than just the other half of Axum. Rather, they stick to the palate in a pleasing mingling of flavors. Utilizing a wealth of extended techniques and saturnine divinations, Newton is at one moment descriptive (“Mälak ’Uqabe”) and self-multiplying (“Choir”), at another lithe (“Feeling”) and intensely personal (“Susenyos And Werzelya”). The album’s prismatic center is found in the gnarled pathways of “Solomon, Chief Of Wise Man.” Here, we find ourselves face to face with distant calls that are, while ancestral, undeniably of the future. We listen to these sounds from the confines of our privacy, be they circumscribed by headphones and wires or by the larger spaces of our homes. Yet in doing so we find a broader path along which to place our feet. This is this sense of transit that Newton brings, each flutter charged by a nascent realization awakening of daybreak. Even as it shrugs off the blanket of night, it cannot help but see itself reflected in the mirroring sky, where only memories dance in lieu of lived experience. Keeping one eye on the past, these meditations walk sideways, hoping that we might do the same…on our own time.

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