Combobulate is the second release in Newvelle Records Renewal Series is a celebratory and unique exploration of saxophonist and composer Michael Blake’s compositions and arrangements featuring a star-studded brass section including TWO legendary tuba players Bob Stewart and Marcus Rojas, Steven Bernstein on trumpet, Clark Gayton on trombone and Allan Mednard on drums. Blake plays tenor and soprano saxophones and flute. One of the more interesting names here is Bob Stewart, who this writer associates with the great records of the late Arthur Blythe, yet Stewart has played for Mingus, Gil Evans, and Lester Bowie as well. For more background before we delve into the music, Blake is a free running spirit who is as likely to turn up in a country gig as in a jazz setting. Here’s what Newvelle owner Ethan Mehler says about him in the liners – “A “first call” musician who prefers to call his own shots. Country, soul, “free,” swing, trad jazz, rock, musical traditions from Vietnam and India, southern blues …all of it rolling around in Michael’s bag but always with an ear tilted towards the joy of it.”
Although we have mentioned Newvelle Records on these pages previously, a little refresher can’t hurt. Newvelle Records’ The Renewal Collection is a limited edition four-album series affirming the resilience of music post pandemic. The collection, Newvelle’s first series release in two years, features original compositions from select artists, recorded over five months and pressed on the highest quality 180-gram vinyl. The Renewal Collection was recorded and mixed by Grammy-winning engineer Marc Urselli at New York’s East Side Sound between November 2021 and March 2022 and mastered by Josh Bonati. The four records are pressed on 180-gram vinyl, using patented Groovecoated Stampers by Matt Earley of Gotta Groove Records, and stored in gatefolds designed by Studio Mococo. In addition to Liebman, artists included in The Renewal Collection are Elan Mehler, Dave Liebman, and Nadje Noordhius. You can purchase the four as a set or each individually. According to the press, the vinyl is amazingly silent. The bands are placed mostly in the center of the sound stage, at what feels like a decent distance, resulting in compact quality and void of extreme stereo effects.
So, now to this celebratory music we go. The album kicks off with “Henry’s Boogaloo” (dedicated to New Orleans piano great Henry Butler) as is “Bills in the Bell” with both adapted for the double tuba session. The former has one tuba holding down the bass line while the other converses with Bernstein’s trumpet. The latter, another in the bouncy blues vein, has a rather tricky introduction after which the tuba sets the rhythm that the higher-toned instruments play to, leading to a call and response section between trumpet and the other brass instruments, brass band style. That section evolves into a duet between tuba and muted trumpet before fading out. The title track has both tubas strutting along with Mednard’s drums, as Gayton, Bernstein, and Blake riff above their foundation. The tightly swinging “Focus Pocus” becomes a feature for Blake’s tenor, nodding to Stan Getz’s album Focus. The tone poem “Cuyahoga Valley,” composed by Blake’s on Roland, has the tuba sustaining the lowest of notes to begin. A phrase emerges over Mednard’s brushes and in chorale-like fashion the other horns faintly make their presence known.
Blake takes to the soprano on “Strange Affair,” blowing lines akin to Coltrane’s rendition of “My Favorite Things.” Bernstein and Gayton play contrapuntally as the tubas rumble. Admittedly, it seems a bit strange hearing this Coltrane-esque tune without a conventional chordal instrument. Blake sought his previous bandleader, John Lurie’s approval to record the languid “Bob the Bob,” which pits Blake’s high-pitched soprano against the two conversational tubas with Mednard giving his toms a workout. The celebratory vibe returns with the polyrhythmic 12/8 groove of ‘Malagasy,” maybe the most choral sounding piece of the set, which speaks to Blake’s fondness for Madagascar choral music. Interestingly, this is the second reference to the music of Madagascar recently, the other being Derek Trucks’ affinity for the guitar music of D’Gary captured in the final episode of their 4-part album I Am the Moon. “Anthem for No Country” is adapted from Blake’s 2002 album Elevated. Elan Mehler joins the band in memoriam to their fallen colleague Frank Kimbrough. Closing the album is a fine chorale arrangement of Robert Burns “The Parting Glass.”
This is one of the more interesting sextets you’ll hear. It resembles a brass band in some regards but only a couple of the tracks bear the NOLA style. The others are more chorale oriented. Chances are excellent that you won’t find many bands with two tubas, thus the interesting arrangements and colors here.