David Newman's nickname is Fathead, but someone missed the boat. What's really fat is his sound: big, bold, silky smooth, identifying him as a classic Texas sax man in the tradition of Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb, Herschel Evans and Buddy Tate.
"According to what some of the critics and musicians say, I guess I'm one of them," said Dallas-born Newman, who opens five nights at Elario's tonight.
For years, Newman was best known for supporting roles behind Ray Charles, Herbie Mann, T-Bone Walker, Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin and others. With his most recent albums, though, he's come into his own, gaining enough critical acclaim to land steady work as a leader.
Early in his career, Newman emulated alto man Buster Smith, a be-bopper who provided some of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker's inspiration. Eventually, though, Newman tempered his sound with blues and R&B.
"Buster was the first professional musician I played with," said Newman, who picked up his nickname from a high school music teacher after fumbling an arpeggio. "He was a self-taught arranger, composer, musician. He got famous in Kansas City, playing with
the Blue Devils. Count Basie's band came out of that. Bird had listened to Buster in Kansas City and was influenced by his playing. Come to find out, Buster was one of my main influences, as was Charlie Parker. My complete style of playing, especially on alto, was highly influenced by Buster. He had a great feeling for the blues."
But bop didn't provide much of a living in the early 1950s, and soon Newman was gigging with blues and R&B artists like Walker, Lowell Fulsom and Lloyd Glenn, along with such jazzmen as Booker Ervin, Ornette Coleman, King Curtis and Red Connors.
Blues guitarist Fulsom, a member of Ray Charles' band, led Newman to a turning point: His meeting with Charles in 1952. He joined Charles' band in 1954 and supplied a range of sax sounds over the next 10 years.
"Alto was my first instrument. When Ray started his band, he need a baritone, not a tenor, so I played baritone for a couple of years until the first tenor chair was open. Prior to that, I hadn't played any tenor at all."
Newman recorded his first album as a leader in 1959, the critically acclaimed "Ray Charles Introduces Fathead Newman," including the song "Hard Times," which has become one of his trademark tunes.
During the 1960s, he spent several years trying to make it in New York, which he now calls home.
"I was trying to get a hold here and it was a rough period," Newman said. "I wasn't able to really get established, and I went back to Dallas and joined Ray again for 1970 and '71. Then Herbie Mann asked me to join his band, and I stayed with him for six or seven years. I came to New York again in 1979, and I've been here ever since."
In retrospect, Newman said, the blues and R&B work helped develop his personal sound, an emotional, swinging style that places as much importance on silences and subtle nuances as on speed and technical mastery.
Over the years, Newman made several albums of his own, including two late '60s big band sessions, in addition to his work with various top players. His most recent effort is "Fire," a live recording made at the Village Vanguard in New York with former Ray Charles band mate Hank Crawford sharing the sax duties, released last year.
Newman has two albums in the can: a live date with saxophonist Clifford Jordan, due this month; and a benefit album for the homeless featuring a trio consisting of Newman, drummer Art Blakey and pianist Doctor John, scheduled for summer release. Later this year, Newman wants to make a big band album with his son, Dino, who sings and plays drums.
Newman hasn't been in San Diego since at least the 1970s, he said. He's bringing several horns, but plans to spend most of his time on tenor, now his personal favorite. He'll be joined by locals Jim Plank on drums, Bob Magnusson on bass and, making a rare appearance, Cecil Lytle on piano.