THEO BLECKMANN TRIO
Theo Bleckmann voice
Shai Maestro piano
Ben Monder guitar
“Songs of Refuge and Resistance”
Theo Bleckmann voice
and The Westerlies:
Andy Clausen trombone
Willem de Koch trombone
Riley Mulherkar trumpet
Choe Rowlands trumpet
“He has taken vocalese into the 21st century.”
Martin Johnson, Wall Street Journal
Beyond being a vocalist of rare purity and daring, Theo Bleckmann is a sound painter who creates what JazzTimes has described aptly as “luminous webs” in music. The German-born New Yorker – after appearing on two ECM albums by Meredith Monk and another by Julia Hülsmann – made his striking label debut as a leader with Elegy in 2017. This album showcases Bleckmann as a composer as much as a singer, with several instrumental pieces voiced by what he calls his “ambient” band of kindred-spirit guitarist Ben Monder, keyboardist Shai Maestro and the subtle rhythm team of Chris Tordini and John Hollenbeck. Highlights include Bleckmann’s sublime rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Comedy Tonight” (“tragedy tomorrow… comedy tonight”), as well as the mellifluous vocalise of “Little Elegy” and achingly poetic “To Be Shown to Monks at a Certain Temple.”
“This record is called Elegy for a reason – each of its songs relates to death or transcendence in some existential way,” Bleckmann explains. “Several of the pieces are instrumental, with ‘Cortege’ a funeral march. In the song ‘Take My Life,’ I imagine what it would be like to die, losing facility bit by bit: losing your voice, your heartbeat, your breath. I wrote that one thinking about Bach and his cantatas, especially ‘Ich habe genug,’ which is about joyfully going into the afterlife. For this album, I wanted to create songs that deal with this subject matter not in a morbid way but with some light to it.”
The overall tone and tenor of Elegy – floating yet substantive, reflecting on serious emotions but with a lightness of touch – reflects Bleckmann’s thoughts on the inevitability of the life cycle, the sublimity of our life’s punctuation.
Bleckmann and company recorded Elegy at New York City’s Avatar Studios with producer Manfred Eicher, who helped shape the album. “Elegy” was released by ECM in 2017.
In describing the art of Theo Bleckmann, the Chicago Reader declared that he is “one of the most flexible and uncategorizable figures on the New York scene. Since the mid-’90s, he has been doing his thing in a niche of his own invention, somewhere between jazz, cabaret, classical, experimental and improvised music. He has got a strong, precise voice and impeccable pitch control… with range and curiosity. It’s tremendously rare for a singer to realize the potential of the voice so thoroughly.”
Bleckmann’s first appearance in a jazz context for ECM was his featured role on pianist Julia Hülsmann’s exploratory 2015 album A Clear Midnight – Kurt Weill and America, which The Guardian called “one of the great jazz treatments of the songs of Kurt Weill,” singling out Bleckmann’s vocal “eloquence.” Prior to that, he appeared as a member of the Meredith Monk Ensemble on the albums mercy (2002) and impermanence (2007).
Since 1989, Bleckmann has been a resident of New York, where his early champions included jazz vocal great Sheila Jordan. He has sung everything from songs by Charles Ives and Kate Bush to Las Vegas standards and Shakespearean sonnets, collaborating with figures from Laurie Anderson to John Zorn.
Songs of Refuge and Resistance is a collaboration between Theo Bleckmann and brass quartet The Westerlies which was formed in June of 2018, when they worked in residence at Yellow Barn. These border-crossing artists have deep roots in both jazz and contemporary music alike, and created and commissioned a whole new body of work for voice and brass. These songs highlight music’s integral role and power in protest movements and in providing internal solace amidst external turmoil. A new sonic landscape is explored in this unique pairing of voice and brass, amplifying timeless voices of truth both past and present including Bertolt Brecht, Joni Mitchell, James Baldwin, Mitsuye Yamada, Woody Guthrie, Emma Gonzalez and others. Bleckmann adds angelic choirs and dark murky textures through occasional live vocal looping, expanding The Westerlies’ warm and refined, almost string-like sound.
The Westerlies are a New York-based brass quartet comprised of four childhood friends from Seattle, Washington: Riley Mulherkar and Chloe Rowlands on trumpet, and Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch on trombone. “Skilled interpreters who are also adept improvisers” (NPR’s Fresh Air), The Westerlies explore jazz, roots, and chamber music influences to create the rarest of hybrids: music that is both “folk-like and composerly, lovely and intellectually rigorous” (NPR Music). The ensemble has produced two critically acclaimed albums of genre-defying chamber music: its 2014 debut, “Wish the Children Would Come On Home: The Music of Wayne Horvitz” (Songlines), and a 2016 double-CD of primarily original compositions, “The Westerlies” (Songlines). Sought-after collaborators, The Westerlies are also featured on recordings by Fleet Foxes (Nonesuch), Vieux Farke Toure (Six Degrees Records), and Dave Douglas (Greenleaf). Recent engagements include The Hollywood Bowl, Newport Folk Festival, Newport Jazz Festival, The National Gallery of Art, SFJazz, and The Cliburn.
Vocalist and composer Theo Bleckmann has been a leader or collaborator on some of the most interesting jazz and new-music projects of the past 25 years. He has clear, crisp diction and can render a lyric poignant during a straightforward reading, but Mr. Bleckmann is unusually tech savvy and often uses delays and other effects to create an ethereal dreamscape. He has taken vocalese into the 21st century. […] ‘Elegy’ is an unusual recording for a performer known for his vocals, as they are not at the center of each tune. Some are instrumentals, and on others Mr. Bleckmann contributes elegant scatting to the work of his stellar band […] Today’s jazz is often as much about texture as it is about virtuosity, but in Mr. Bleckmann’s music it’s about both.
-Martin Johnson, Wall Street Journal-
The set builds from minuscule beginnings in fine pianist Shai Maestro’s soft chords and restrained flutters in the voiceless opener, through the pared-down Sondheim, and into the ghostly-chorister ascents of ‘Fields’, as Monder’s warm guitar emerges […] Bleckmann’s subjects are mortality and hope, but his lightness of touch and the band’s independence (several pieces are instrumentals) ensure that startling music-making is the overarching theme.
-John Fordham, The Guardian-
Bleckmann surrounds himself with longtime collaborators Ben Monder on electric guitar and John Hollenbeck on drums, as well two ECM initiates in pianist Shai Maestro and bassist Chris Tordini. Of the 11 songs here, only four contain lyrics, the rest are showcases for Bleckmann’s considerable improvisational gifts and elegant technique. […] it reveals Bleckmann’s creative authority as he searches the limits of both sound and silence for an expression that utters its own name. The album is a gentle wonder; it bodes well for an enduring relationship between artist and label.
-Thom Jurek, All Music-
Its underlying concept may be a dark one and there is, to be sure, plenty of introspective, existential-leaning music on ‘Elegy’; but, at the same time, Bleckmann and his empathically connected quartet also manage to deliver no shortage of beauty. Even with lyrics as final as ‘Take My Life’—‘Let me exhale once more and I’ll be mute forever / May there be no heaven’s gate / No other God than silence’—there’s a certain buoyant joy to the music, with Monder taking a rare solo that’s tonally connected to King Crimson’s Robert Fripp but harmonically all his own and filled with an abundance of head-scratching techniques, all driven, with frenetic energy, by Maestro, Tordini and Hollenbeck.
– John Kelman, All About Jazz-
As the title implies, his leader debut for ECM is a set of self-composed reflections on death and transcendence, but it’s nothing like as dark or morbid as that suggests. With a front-rank group that includes guitarist Ben Monder, pianist Shai Maestro, bassist Chris Tordini and drummer John Hollenbeck, Bleckmann spins an ethereal web of sound that hovers on the brink of ambience – wistful, hopeful sounds that ebb and flow like wind through a graveyard.
-Cormac Larkin, The Irish Times-