To some, he's an Oscar Peterson clone whose obscurity is deserved. But talk to musicians and many fans, and you'll find pianist Phineas Newborn Jr. evoking the kind of praise usually reserved for acknowledged giants.
"Phineas is absolutely one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century," says James Williams, one of five pianists who will perform at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington tomorrow. "We want to reintroduce him to generations of audiences that may have let his name . . . slip to the back burner."
The group, The Contemporary Piano Ensemble, is touring America to support not only Newborn's name but its new record, "The Key Players" (DIW), a tribute that includes songs associated with Newborn.
Newborn (1931-1989) matched the intricate swing stylings of Art Tatum with the hard-charging be-bop of Bud Powell. "He could make the piano sound primitive, or he could make it sound very sophisticated -- which is what the instrument can do in the hands of a master," Williams explains in his slow Memphis drawl.
All the ensemble's pianists -- Williams, Mulgrew Miller, Harold Mabern Jr., Geoff Keezer and Donald Brown -- are used to playing as leaders, and bassist Christian McBride and drummer Tony Reedus are two of the day's best-regarded young players. But Williams says egos haven't been a problem.
"We all knew the magnitude of this," he says. "All I had to do was say 'Phineas Newborn Jr.' and all of us were going to stand at attention, and a lot of others too. . . . We're the L.A. Lakers of the '80s and early '90s. Sure we've got some stars, but we're gonna come out and play as a team."
Williams is also paying homage to a Memphis tradition of which Newborn was a key part. All but one of the pianists hail from Memphis. Many Memphis pianists play with a blues inflection and a two-handed attack, he says. "Miles [Davis] . . . said it must be something they put in the water down there in Memphis." Williams recalls meeting Newborn while playing one of his first gigs at a Holiday Inn lounge. He remembers Newborn as "a quiet, even fragile individual. He'd hardly ever speak, but when he did you knew you had to listen. It was like that E.F. Hutton effect," he says with a laugh.
So why has Newborn remained a musician's musician? Some critics dismissed him as a technique-obsessed player whose velocity didn't lead to emotional weight. But they were ignoring Newborn's range and the subtlety of his technique.
"My definition of technique is not being able to play fast, but the ability to get a beautiful sound out of the instrument, to use the pedals, to suggest different nuances, to voice leads, to get a whole range of colors and dynamics," Williams says.
Contemporary Piano Ensemble
When: Saturday, Feb. 5, 8 p.m.
Where: Smithsonian Institution, Baird Auditorium, Museum of National History
Tickets: $17 for members, $20 for nonmembers and $12 for students
Call: (202) 357-3030
Dismissed as a heartless virturoso by some,embraced as a crucial be-bopinflucenced stylist by others, pianist Phineas Newborn,who died in 1989.Is the subject of a tribute by five accomplished pianists who.show his influence directly. To hear a sampling of the Contemporay Piano Ensemble. Call Sundial,the Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800 in Anne Arundel County. Using a touch-tone phone punch in the four-digit code 6148 after you hear the greeting.