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Newvelle’s Season Four

Newvelle’s Season Four

The love of vinyl LPs comes in many forms: the millennial’s obsession with retro cool, the baby boomer’s nostalgia for physical artifacts and 12×12-inch cover art, and the audiophile’s veneration of the deeper, warmer ambience of analog sound reproduction. Now in their fourth year of releasing annually a half-dozen vinyl-only jazz recordings by subscription, producer Elan Mehler and business partner Jean-Christophe Morrisseau cater less to young hipster collectors (although who can argue with the cool factor of records pressed on uncolored translucent vinyl?) and more to the artifact aficionados and sonic purists among us. The Newvelle team, which includes recording and mixing engineer Marc Urselli, at EastSide Sound in New York City, and mastering engineer Alex DeTurk, makes evident its deep affection for the medium, from the pristine 180-gram vinyl to the commissioned cover and interior gatefold paintings, and the “fictional work in six chapters” provided in print in lieu of liner notes (the latter can be accessed online). Content is equally revered: By and large, Newvelle jazz pushes gently and politely beyond the swing-and-bebop-based mainstream without venturing more than slightly into freeform sturm and skronk.

Newvelle’s Season Four—which opened in the first third of 2019 with Noah Preminger’s Preminger Plays Preminger (reviewed in Issue 295) and the eponymous album by the Broken Shadows all-star quartet of alto saxophonist Tim Berne, tenor saxophonist Chris Speed, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King—continues through the year with May, June, July, and August releases that provide sumptuous listening experiences that reward undistracted attention, provide a prismatic view of today’s eclectic range of what might be called “chamber jazz,” and warrant the luxury-product price of $400 plus shipping for six opulently packaged LPs. 

On More than Enough, tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Gregory Tardy is joined by guitarist Bill Frisell for eight duets that entwine the players’ musical DNA in their mutual approach to gospel (Thomas Whitfield’s title tune), folk (Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times”), venerable jazz classics (by Monk, Ellington, and Strayhorn), and two originals from each. Thirty years ago, Tardy was one of the neo-mainstream “young lions” of jazz (at 53 he is four years junior to Wynton Marsalis). His maturation fueled by collaborations with Elvin Jones, Andrew Hill, Dave Douglas, and others, he beautifully matches the 67-year-old Frisell’s abstracted melodies and harmonies. Frisell plays about as much delicate acoustic guitar as he does his better-known reverberant electric, and Tardy switches briefly from soft, wooly tones on tenor to perform a sweet aerial ballet on clarinet. The production seats their fully realized sounds in intimate adjacency for what may be the most contemplative, turn-the-lights-down-low recording in either’s catalog.

It’s a safe bet that From Scratch will be many listeners’ introduction to Billy Lester, a 73-year-old Bronx pianist in the Lennie Tristano–Sal Mosca lineage who has dedicated more of his life to his family than to his career. Newvelle, with a short documentary in the works, brings him to light in the stellar company of one slightly older veteran, bassist Rufus Reid, and the younger, prolific, and universally hailed drummer Matt Wilson. In his obscurity, Lester has cultivated an exploratory, melodically playful style that makes this, the most mainstream album among these releases, something nonetheless probing. Reed’s rock-steady pulses and sly harmonic underpinnings and Wilson’s respectfully unanticipated accents frame and nudge the inventiveness of Lester’s swinging interplay of right and left hands and his re-harmonization of such familiar standards as “You’d Be So Nice to Come To,” “These Foolish Things,” “Scrapple from the Apple,” “How Deep Is the Ocean,” “Body and Soul,” and “I Surrender Dear.” 

The Newvelle affinity for singular pianists (producer Elan Mehler plays the instrument and composes) resulted in prior releases by Frank Kimbrough, Jon Cowherd, Don Friedman, Leo Genovese, and Jack DeJohnette (yes, solo piano), among others. Kenny Werner is not only singular, he is a giant of his generation. He always plays with fresh commitment to the moment, honoring the unpredictability of the muse. At any pace, from ruminative to racing, whether metamorphosing in a straight line or turning on a dime, the manifestations of his improviser’s imagination always astound. On Church on Mars his quartet—with the widely recorded and influential Dave Liebman on soprano and tenor sax and flute, James Genus on bass, and Terri Lyne Carrington on drums—mind-melds to magical effect on three Werner compositions, one Liebman composition, Monk’s “Think of One” (a tenor showcase), and the Gershwins’ “Embraceable You.” 

Werner’s encyclopedic piano vocabulary (enveloping Monk, Evans, Tyner, Hancock, Corea, and … ) assures that this quartet sound has no isolated precedent. The mix intensifies the distinctiveness: The piano fills the entire soundstage while the other instruments are sometimes suspended on a virtual perimeter. Dutch singer Vivienne Aerts’ guest vocal on “Embraceable You” is hauntingly distanced in that way, buoyed by Werner’s meticulously spaced chords and single notes, and the mystery underscored by an interlude of spacy effects on Fender Rhodes and percussion. Werner is overdubbed playing Hammond B-3 on “Church on Mars,” adding an appropriately futuristic gospel crescendo to a track on which Liebman blows his soprano on beyond Lacy and Coltrane. And Lieb- man’s expansive “Tender Mercies,” after opening with an Asian evocation (piano, flute, faint drums), plants a flag in Trane’s ballad territory.

Newvelle’s Season Four winds up with the most offbeat, idiosyncratic chamber jazz release of the bunch—cellist Hank Roberts leading a trio with pianist Jacob Sacks and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza. Roberts is best known for his long association with Bill Frisell, and he shares the guitarist’s genre-eschewing sensibilities. Congeries of Ethereal Phenomena is a perfectly cryptic and apt title for an album that encompasses a jumble of bop (“Evidence,” “Back Home in Indiana”/Donna Lee”) and Roberts originals that range from diamond-cut, abstracted jazz gems to a five-part suite of hopscotching, globalized new chamber music, a slice of pastoral and soulful country-folk with echoes of “Love Has No Pride,” and, to close the album, a very brief, touching cello-piano duo tribute to his mother’s birthday. The panoply of styles allows Roberts to exploit all of his virtuosic and extended techniques. He can sound like a guitarist, a bassist, a violinist, as well as a cellist, and his bowing, plucking, and everything in between are exquisitely captured in a shallow but resonant soundscape that gives crystalline presence to Sacks’ brisk, angular pianism, and a spacious spread to Sperrazza’s sensitive, restrained drumming. 

As LPs were for so many “vinyl junkies” (as we called ourselves) in the 60s and 70s, these Newvelle releases are rich multimedia experiences. Actually, you don’t have to remember staring at the covers of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, In the Court of the Crimson King, or Santana’s Abraxas, or poring over Nat Hentoff’s liner notes for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan or Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain to appreciate Newvelle’s postmodern approach to package enrichment. Each gatefold sleeve features bold abstract expressionist paintings by Henry Paz, one on the front cover, one across the inside spread. His broad brushstrokes, slathers, and scrapes beckon the eye to wander around their world and perhaps detect hints of figurative representation or find parallels with the music emanating from your turntable. For literary stimulation, Tim Sultan’s short story, “Churchill Down,” does an archeological dig into jazz history, conjuring the names of Phineas Newborn Jr., Dodo Marmarosa, Gigi Gryce, and the pivotal protagonist Churchill McGinnis. The narrator wonders “whether these great souls haven’t been left behind a bit rudely at the curb.”

No such concern is necessary with these vinyl LPs. Like a multi–Michelin-starred restaurant that boasts a prix fixe, 15-course tasting menu, when it comes to a full-on sensory immersion into 21st-century jazz, Newvelle leaves nothing in the kitchen, or at the curb. 

By Derk Richardson

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