Jazz guitarist Calvin Newborn may have left Memphis for Jacksonville, Florida, a few years ago, but as his new album proves, his hometown is still on his mind. Recorded last June at Sam Phillips' Recording and released last week on locally based Yellow Dog Records, New Born features Newborn -- backed by pianist Donald Brown, organist Charlie Wood, bassist London Branch, and drummer Renardo Ward -- on eight stellar tracks, with saxophonist Herman Green, trumpeter Scott Thompson, and percussionist Ekpe Obioto weaving in and out of the mix.
"When Calvin made a left turn, these musicians knew to turn with him," says Scott Bomar, who produced the album.
Bomar, who worked with Newborn on the Hustle & Flow soundtrack and at the Stax Music Academy and played alongside him at the Center for Southern Folklore's Memphis Music & Heritage Festival, New Orlean's Ponderosa Stomp, and in the PBS documentary The Blues, cites the guitarist as a mentor.
"Calvin taught me how to read music and gave me some of the only formal training I've ever had," Bomar says. "I realized that he was also constantly writing, and I thought that Calvin needed somebody to record him and get all these good new songs heard."
So Bomar thought of Yellow Dog Records, the label behind his own group, The Bo-Keys. Newborn acquiesced, and the two set a date for the recording session.
"I felt that [Yellow Dog Records owner] Mike Powers could market my music better than I could," Newborn says. "He has a company that's already established, and he has a good chance of getting me the right exposure."
Newborn also signed over the rights to his 1998 album Up City, which was originally released on his own Omnifarious label. "Calvin's a do-it-yourself kind of guy," says Bomar. "But there's only so much he could do, and I thought it was a real shame that Up City didn't get more of a push."
"I had the know-how but not the can-how," Newborn says with a chuckle, thrilled to announce that Yellow Dog Records also reissued Up City this month.
"Jazz has always been overlooked in Memphis," Bomar says. "The Newborn family provided a whole chapter of this city's music that's gotten left out of the history books. The Finas Newborn Orchestra laid the groundwork for both Sun and Stax. They played on B.B. King sessions, and [Stax alumnus] William Bell was a singer in their band. [Gene] 'Bowlegs' Miller played with them, and Elvis Presley used to come listen to Calvin play."
Memphis' loss has been Jacksonville's gain: Newborn is currently working on a gospel CD and has also managed to land a booking agent. "I'm playing Fridays and Saturdays at the Grape, which is the best club I've played in a long time," he says. "Every Wednesday, I play a solo gig at a beach club called Ocean 60.
"In Memphis, I was playing one gig a week for 50 bucks. That's what I had to do to survive," Newborn says. "When I look back at what I went through in Memphis, I realize that I really feel like a runaway slave. Here in Jacksonville, I feel free at last."
For more information on Calvin Newborn, go to YellowDogRecords.com.
New Born isn't the only new Memphis-centric jazz album in the racks: Local soul-jazz singer Candice Ivory will be singing tracks from her latest CD, Questography (released in February), during a free in-store performance at Shangri-La Records this Friday, May 20th. The performance begins at 5:30 p.m. Go to Shangri.com for details.
Memphians had their hands in more than 15 albums nominated for Grammy Awards this year, including such disparate releases as Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose, Al Green's I Can't Stop, Modest Mouse's Good News For People Who Like Bad News, and Elvis Costello's The Delivery Man, all of which were recorded here in the Mid-South.
This Friday, the Generation M Luncheon will honor those players and present two awards to producer Paul Ebersold and engineer Skidd Mills for their work on Third Day's rock-gospel album Wire, which actually won a Grammy. Saxophonist and Grammy nominee Kirk Whalum will perform at the event alongside singer Susan Marshall.
The public is invited to attend the Generation M Luncheon, held in The Peabody's Grand Ballroom, Salon B, at 11 a.m. this Friday, May 20th. Tickets, $45 per person, are available via phone (525-1340) or e-mail (Memphis@grammy.com). For more information, go to Grammy.com/Memphis.aspx.