Recording of February 2021: Newvelle Records Season Five

Newvelle Records Season Five
Pablo Ablanedo, Dave Douglas, Sullivan Fortner, Elan Mehler, OWL Trio, Rufus Reid, Carmen Staaf, Patrick Zimmierli
Newvelle Records NV025–30 (6 LP) 2020. Reviewed from 16/44.1 AIFF files. Elan Mehler, prod.; Marc Urselli, eng.
Performance ****
Sonics ****½

If Newvelle Records is any indication, jazz's future looks bright. Since 2015, the New York label has produced four series of artist-curated, all-analog, subscription-only box sets of vinyl records with superb fidelity and top-tier musicians performing original material. Highlights included pianist (!) Jack DeJohnette's Return, guitarist Gilad Hekselman's Eyes of the World, bassist John Patitucci's Irmãos de Fé, tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger's Preminger Plays Preminger, and guitarist Lionel Loueke's Close Your Eyes.

Newvelle co-founder, producer, and house pianist Elan Mehler describes the label's house sound as "honest, warm, straightforward." Like classic labels whose sound was attributed to specific engineers and studios, Newvelle records are recorded exclusively at one studio: New York's EastSide Sound. They're recorded and mixed by Marc Urselli, mastered by Alex DeTurk, and pressed at Quality Record Pressings. Each series consists of six LPs, priced at $400 per series. The sound is consistently toneful, woody, and transparent.

I often gripe that while contemporary jazz is full of interesting rhythms and bravura arrangements, melody, soul, and meaning often go missing. Buenos Aires–born pianist Pablo Ablanedo brings it in Chistreza. Performed by a remarkable octet of Anat Cohen, Jenny Scheinman, Chris Cheek, Jerome Sabbagh, Diego Urcola, Ben Monder, Franco Pinna, and Daniel Ian Smith, Chistreza recalls the music of Maria Schneider in miniature in its intimacy and intricacy, and in that soloists and solos are spectacular. Ablanedo provides complex, organic arrangements and memorable melodies. Chistreza was one of the finest jazz recordings of 2020.

Dave Douglas and Elan Mehler's If There Are Mountains is based on poetry and haikus delivered by vocalist Dominique Eade. This dark, cerebral, ethereal music is given humanity and anchor by Eade's heartfelt, measured readings. On two tracks on Life of the Party, the OWL Trio—Orlando le Fleming on bass, Will Vinson on saxophones, and Lage Lund on guitar—collaborates with vocalist Kurt Elling. I found myself paying rapt attention to these hard-swinging, charming performances. I laughed out loud at Elling's way of rounding a word up with a slight caress and for gifting words with color and drama. In the buoyant, tiptoeing title track, Elling speaks, reciting a poem by Beat legend Gregory Corso. Elling rolls the words around in his mouth, equal parts sage and scruffy bad influence. Lund's mercury-swift solos are magical. Vinson is a butterfly. The trio's readings of "End of a Love Affair" and "We'll Be Together Again" are winsome and graceful, tranquil and inspired.

On Always in the Moment, veteran bassist Rufus Reid's agile maneuvers and massive, buttery tone ground pianist Sullivan Fortner's crystalline sound and supercharged energy; the bond between them is strong. There's a holy stillness to this record, the musicians circling each other, embracing at times, soloing at others, but always listening and reacting in the singular moment. The swing feeling is deep and thick, the sound of the bass and piano stunning. The performances unfurl with grace, wit, and a sense of shared discovery.

Carmen Staaf's Woodland is piano trio jazz, compadres bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Jeff Williams swinging dryly. Staaf's chunky, rolling phrases and probing mindset recall Evans and Jarrett, but there's a consistent, bluesy undertow—Wynton Kelly, anyone? Staaf has a classical pianist's gracefulness and a dark, lustrous tone. Her measured, halting cadences seem to stretch phrases beyond literal time. Staaf's reading of Monk's "Pannonica" retains the original playfulness. Her eerie "Canons" brings more individual character, surging and zigzagging. Staaf's music sounds simple at first, but once its spell infuses you, there's no letting go. Beauty abounds.

Supported by pianist Kevin Hays and drummer Satoshi Takeishi, Patrick Zimmerli's Book of Dreams failed to entice. The multireedist chose excellent supporting musicians and they work his emotional music like pros, but the compositions seem rote. A painfully slow cover of bossa nova standard "How Insensitive" recalls an after-hours, no-one-left-standing wedding party; Zimmerli's torpid "Fly to The Moon" should be retitled "Moon Down and Dead."

Despite one misstep, Newvelle Records Season Five is an unqualified success. $400 for a box set that may become a collector's item, featuring remarkable musicians and brilliant performances, recorded and pressed to the highest standards, should be an easy purchase for fans of soulful, swinging, captivating jazz.—Ken Micallef