James Newton is a thoroughly contemporary artist, making elegant, sometimes eccentric, always high-minded albums that reflect a wide variety of jazz and classical influences without giving a fig about what happens to be popular at a given time. Besides producing a lovely tone quality, his flute work is highly resourceful, making use of flutter-tonguing, birdlike effects, and simultaneous vocal/flute lines, trying to push the envelope of his instrument. As a composer, Newton finds wellsprings of inspiration in John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Duke Ellington -- the latter whose music he transformed completely on the adventurous The African Flower album -- and he writes charts for all kinds of combinations of instruments.
Newton's first musical experiences were on the electric bass as part of a Motown cover band in San Pedro, which he quit to form a Jimi Hendrix-style trio. However, he also picked up alto and tenor saxophones while in high school, not discovering the flute until he was 16. Heavily influenced by Eric Dolphy -- to whom he has been compared -- and Roland Kirk, Newton began to lean toward the avant-garde in jazz while studying classical music at Cal State Los Angeles. Soon after moving to Pomona, he joined a local band, Black Music Infinity, that was led by then free jazz drummer Stanley Crouch, with Arthur Blythe and David Murray as co-conspirators. Feeling the competitive heat on saxes, Newton decided to concentrate totally on the flute at age 22. A year after graduation (1978), he made a move to New York with Murray, where he hooked up with Anthony Davis on three LPs, played in Cecil Taylor's big band, and started recording as a leader on several small and large labels. He moved back to San Pedro in 1982 and started teaching jazz history, composition, and jazz ensemble at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. Over the years, Newton has also written several classical commissions for various-sized ensembles, and in 1990, he published a book, Improvising Flute. Alas, not enough of his recordings are currently available to give one a decent idea of his wide-ranging tastes.