I wasn’t one of those kids who took apart radios to see how they worked. This origin story of nearly every engineer -- and audiophile -- I’ve ever met couldn’t be further from my experience. Rather, for much of my life I’ve sympathized with that character in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent who believed that “life didn’t stand much looking into.” Although I’ve loved music for as long as I can remember, I’ve been content to enjoy it passively and to explain the records that meant the most to me as marvels that exist beyond my comprehension.
Which is why I was surprised by my reaction to Season 1 of Newvelle: I wanted to know they did it. How did they manage to pull together poetry from Tracy K. Smith, photographs from Bernard Plossu, and music from the likes of Jack DeJohnette (on piano!) and Don Friedman? And to put it all out only on vinyl? Who had the audacity to think this would work? And how did they pull it off so well?
What I discovered is that Elan, J.C., and the Newvelle team are actually eager to show you exactly how they’ve built Newvelle Records into one of the most innovative operations in the music industry. Whether through Elan’s weekly listening sessions (a godsend in this year of isolation) or through the live-recording and executive producer sessions, it’s clear that Newvelle views its listeners as active collaborators; we’re helping to build this label with them.
I’ve been fortunate to participate in several of the programs Newvelle offers to its members, but -- not surprisingly -- I’ve most enjoyed the time I’ve spent in the studio. I’ll admit that I was skeptical at first. One of the wonders of jazz is its spontaneity, the fact that you’re witnessing the creation of something unique in that very moment. Don’t you want to believe that Coltrane wandered into Rudy Van Gelder’s studio and that A Love Supreme simply emerged, fully formed, from his lungs? The process of “engineering” -- which Newvelle’s live recording sessions promise a glimpse into -- seems at odds with this (obviously Romantic) view of jazz.
The reality of my experience in the studio was, of course, somewhere in between the Romantic and the engineered. Many tunes required multiple takes; and there were times when the musicians stopped to work through transitions or tricky parts of a song. But what I remember most from the sessions I’ve joined is that the spontaneity we associate with jazz performances was present to a surprising degree. At times, in fact, the off-the-cuff nature of the sessions was almost comedic. The saxophone player Hery Paz joined my life recording session for one track, which the band laid down in one take. Hery -- whose paintings provide the cover art for Season 5 -- actually did wander in off the street and, if I recall correctly, didn’t even remove his coat before playing gorgeously on an Elan original called “Straw Hole.” He was probably in the studio for fifteen minutes.
Patrick Zimmerli’s recording session for his Season Five record Book of Dreams is another good example. The sessions took place over two days, and the first day was largely spent working through some of the difficult pieces of Patrick’s famously complex compositions. At the end of that first day, the band had recorded only two or three tracks, and even those seemed to be provisional takes. The second day couldn’t have been more different: The musicians produced an album’s worth of music in an unbroken seven-hour stretch that featured almost no (verbal) communication. The intensity and focus was unlike anything I’ve seen -- even onstage.
These memories have been particularly precious during this long year. And I’ll admit that the indoor intimacy of the sessions sometimes seems like a luxury of a bygone era. But I know we’ll be back. In the meantime, I’ve so appreciated Elan’s efforts to keep the Newvelle community together, to keep us involved in this audacious effort to create something the music world hasn’t seen before. I’m excited to stay involved.