For the first several numbers Friday night at the One Step Down, it almost seemed that Texas-born David "Fathead" Newman was intent upon casting off the musical identity acquired through years of hard blowing in the company of Ray Charles, King Curtis and bluesman T-Bone Walker.
The opener, "Let Me Know," lent itself well to rhythmic coordination between Newman's soprano sax and the strongly chorded support of pianist Charles Eubanks. A following "Can't Last the Day Without You" on flute was impressive as a display of technique but restrained in emotion. A third piece, on tenor sax, was Websterly breathy and Lesterish in tone. In short, facility was in evidence but excitement minimal, and the set was three-quarters over.
When Newman picked up the instrument for which he is best known, the alto sax, for a churning "Sukey Dukey," a metamorphosis took place. In fact, his voice on this horn is so strikingly individual, his comfort with it so total, one is at a loss to understand his dabbling in the others. Wringing out cries of pain and howls of ecstasy in a tumult of notes at pedal-to-the-floor speed, he wrenched a heretofore politely applauding audience from yawning distraction into edge-of-the-seat tension. Equally enervated were Eubanks, bassist David Leone and drummer Jual Curtis.