Watch Elan Mehler in the studio with an all-star trio, kicking off a new album series at Newvelle
As a musician, a record label owner and a producer, Elan Mehler has experience wringing beauty from the language of loss.
Newvelle Records, the vinyl-focused label he co-founded in 2016, released the final recorded statements of pianists Don Friedman and Ellis Marsalis (posthumously, for the latter). And as I reported in the New York Times last year, Mehler spearheaded a major tribute to another pianist, Frank Kimbrough, after he died suddenly in late 2020.
That pandemic project, Kimbrough, features nearly 70 musicians — former peers and students of its beloved subject — in novel combinations, some of them meeting for the first time in the studio. At some point in the process, even with everything else on his mind, Mehler began to imagine what it would sound like to put two of those musicians, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Francisco Mela, into a rhythm section together.
Mela and Scherr had never so much as met before. But after the dust had settled from Kimbrough, Mehler decided he knew the setting for their collaboration — another personal gesture, this one a tribute to his own mother, who had died the previous year.
That album, There is a Dance, will soon be available as part of Newvelle's latest limited series, The Renewal Collection. Available on Sept. 15, it's a four-album set "affirming the resilience of music through the anguish and loss of the Covid-19 pandemic," according to the label.
"My mother was a mystic," Mehler writes in the liner notes. "She believed in the interconnection of all things. There were no coincidences in her life. She lived in a Canadian ashram for a time, and traveled widely through Asia and Europe. Once, when she needed to make a big decision, she had a pilot friend leave her on an uninhabited island off the coast of Alaska for three days."
Some of that sensibility — a conviction that the answer will reveal itself, in time — comes across in "We Fall," a composition recorded for the album but left off the release. Here is footage of the trio playing the piece at East Side Sound.
A ballad in free time, like those long favored by Kimbrough, "We Fall" embeds a gentle cascade in its melody. Listen closely and you'll hear trace echoes of Thelonious Monk's harmonic language, and the faintest whisper of Billy Strayhorn with Duke Ellington (in particular, the ballad "Isfahan"). But the overwhelming impression is of a quiet discovery, as Mehler, Scherr and Mela patiently feel their way through the song.
"I didn’t share the music in advance with them," Mehler explains in his notes. "I made sure before handing them the manuscripts that there weren’t any words describing the music, no directions and no descriptions. With each piece, I would play through the melody alone on solo piano, and then without saying a word, we would cut a take."
There is a Dance — its title alludes to a celebrated book by Ram Dass — joins three other remarkable releases in The Renewal Collection, which ships on Sept. 15, with individual albums released monthly through the end of the year (while supplies last).
Combobulate, by saxophonist Michael Blake, introduces a brass sextet with partners like Stevan Bernstein and Bob Stewart. Full Circle, by trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis, features a stellar quartet with Fred Hersch on piano, Thomas Morgan on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. And Trust and Honesty is a ballads album from saxophonist and NEA Jazz Master David Liebman, with guitarist Ben Monder and bassist John Hébert.
For more information about The Renewal Collection, visit Newvelle Records.