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Theo Bleckmann: Elegy

 A l b u m   D e t a i l s

Label: ECM Records
Released: 2017.01.27
Category: Modern Jazz
Producer(s): Manfred Eicher
Media type: CD
Web address: www.theobleckmann.com
Appears with:
Purchase date: 2017
Price in €: 1,00

 S o n g s ,   T r a c k s

[1] Semblance (T.Bleckmann) - 1:31
[2] Comedy Tonight (T.Bleckmann/S.Sondheim) - 4:16
[3] Fields (T.Bleckmann) - 5:07
[4] The Mission (T.Bleckmann) - 7:44
[5] Littlefields (T.Bleckmann) - 1:58
[6] Elegy (T.Bleckmann) - 6:44
[7] To Be Shown to Monks at a Certain Temple (T.Bleckmann/Chiao Jan) - 4:32
[8] Cortège (T.Bleckmann) - 2:04
[9] Elegy [Variation] (T.Bleckmann) - 0:57
[10] Take My Life (T.Bleckmann) - 5:27
[11] Wither (T.Bleckmann) - 5:33
[12] Alate (T.Bleckmann) - 1:07

 A r t i s t s ,   P e r s o n n e l

Theo Bleckmann - Voice

John Hollenbeck - Drums
Ben Monder - Guitar
Shai Maestro - Piano
Christopher Tordini - Bouble Bass

Manfred Eicher - Producer
James A. Farber - Engineer
Sam Hamill - Editing, Translation
Sascha Kleis - Design
Akihiro Nishimura - Assistant
Caterina di Perri - Cover Photo, Photo Art

 C o m m e n t s ,   N o t e s

2017 CD ECM Records - ECM 2512

Recorded in January 2016 at the Avatar Atudios, New York.

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 – makes his striking label debut as a leader with Elegy. 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.”


Elegy is the ECM leader debut by vocalist and composer Theo Bleckmann. A prolific recording artist, his association with the label dates back to Meredith Monk's 2002 date Mercy and its follow-up, Impermanence, in 2008 (Bleckmann was a member of her ensemble for 15 years). His voice was also a focal point of Julia Hulsmann's quartet on 2015's Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill & America. For a singer who draws attention to himself almost as much for what he doesn't do as what he does, Elegy is a quiet yet startling offering.

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. The lone cover is a quietly arresting read of Stephen Sondheim's "Comedy Tonight," from the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The original is a zany, uptempo, ironic song filled with colorful instrumentation and an animated delivery. Here, Bleckmann's main accompanist, Maestro, gracefully underscores every sung line. The pace is a dirge; it crawls haltingly as his mysterious chords frame a vocal that takes only slight liberties with the melody, highlighting the poignancy in its lyric. "Fields," the very next track, contains a mere four written lines. Hollenbeck's snare and whispering cymbal work, Monder's warm, rounded guitar fills, and the rhythm section create a spacious foundation that Bleckmann is able to use as jumping-off point for group improv in one of the more fluid and dynamic tunes on the set. By contrast, the title number finds the vocalist leading his ensemble wordlessly. Monder is the first one in with controlled, distorted guitar lines that create an ambient tension. Bleckmann's singing is almost chant-like as he duets in turn with each member of the band. The track builds slowly as the vocalist moves through his range amid arco bass, single piano lines, and rolling, double-timed snare and tom-toms as electronic vocal effects add abstraction before Maestro guides it home. "To Be Shown Monks at a Certain Temple" uses many of the same elements, but the effect is quite different. Its studied pace is rife with emotional tenderness and a poetic restraint. Bleckmann's lyrics are haiku-like in articulation matched by shimmering accompaniment. Produced by Manfred Eicher, Elegy fits ECM's aesthetic to a T. More than that, however, 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.

Rating 3.5 out of 5

Thom Jurek - All Music Gude

While ECM is a label largely renowned for its subtlety, attention to space and detail, and overall understated, "less is more" aesthetic—an early sampler titled, even, The Most Beautiful Sound Next To Silence—it's hard to imagine a label debut as a leader that could be less about virtuosity and more about creating soft atmospheres and ambiences than singer Theo Bleckmann's delicately moving, aptly titled Elegy.

Bleckmann is no newcomer to the label: he was an important guest on pianist Julia Hulsmann's A Clear Midnight—Weill and America (ECM, 2015), and a member of contemporary classical vocalist/pianist/composer Meredith Monk's ensemble for 2002's Mercy (ECM) and evocative 2008 followup, Impermanence (ECM)—two albums also featuring Elegy's drummer (and noted composer), John Hollenbeck.

Despite collaborating with Ben Monder for many years on a regular basis—perhaps at their most impressive on the guitarist's mind-boggling Oceana (Sunnyside, 2005)—it was, perhaps, a surprise that Bleckmann did not appear on Monder's ECM debut as a leader, 2015's Amorphae. Still, there are some connective threads between Amorphae and Elegy. Both are largely dark-hued; even Bleckmann's sole cover on Elegy, Stephen Sondheim's "Comedy Tonight" is taken at an uncharacteristically funereal pace, with pianist Shai Maestro moving seamlessly alongside Bleckmann as the singer delivers Sondheim's lyrics with his characteristically unaffected, clear, direct and vibrato-less voice, combining consonant lyricism with the occasional more angular dissonant injection.

Curiously perhaps, for an album led by a singer, this set of eleven Bleckmann compositions and single Sondheim cover only includes four tunes with lyrics: in addition to "Comedy Tonight," Bleckman's minimal prose for one of the album's most dramatic yet understated pieces, "Fields"; his more elegiac "Take My Life," its death-related lyrics the most overt demonstration of what Elegy is, for the most part, about; and "To Be Shown to Monks at a Certain Temple," where Monder's volume-swelled chords over an electronic cloud act as Bleckmann's support during its hymnal introduction, with rising star (and, with Elegy, his first ECM appearance) Shai Maestro moving forward for something that's less a solo and more a fully interactive engagement with Monder, Hollenbeck and bassist Chris Tordini—another ECM first-timer—as a pulse emerges, throughout which Bleckmann delivers an emotive excerpt from Chiao Jan's The Poetry of Zen.

The rest of Elegy is instrumental, with Bleckmann's pure, pitch-perfect voice an additional melodic member of the group—sometimes so refined as to be barely noticeable, elsewhere acting as either a contrapuntal partner or melodic lead—across a set of pieces including three improvisational miniatures based upon (at the suggestion of label head/producer Manfred Eicher) some of the singer's writing for the date: the album-opening, bittersweet "Semblance," opens Satie-esque, with Maestro alone but joined by Monder near its conclusion, the guitarist contributing softly swirling clouds of color; the bass drum-driven "Cortège," where Tordini solos over Monder's sweeping, volume pedal-driven voicings; and "Alate," where an ascending series of piano chords act as the foundation for Hollenbeck's percussive musings, with Tordini acting as anchor and Monder contributing more celestial colorations.

The epically conceived "The Mission" is Elegy's longest track at nearly eight minutes, and moves from a more propulsive introduction through to a more open, atmospheric and rubato middle section where Bleckmann reveals, in the subtlest possible way, some of the prodigious talent that contributes to the reputation he's built for himself, his voice articulating broad intervallic leaps with pinpoint accuracy and—through push, pull and, at times emulating his fellow instrumentalists' textures and timbres—engaging with his band mates on the deepest possible level. Monder, too, may be as understated as he is throughout the entire album, but he does provide a few hints at a similarly portentous (at times even relentless) instrumental mastery that's long been one his touchstones while, at the same time, never relying on it as an end...only the means.

With Monder's overdriven and delay-laden electric guitar fading in to create a dense cushion, over which Bleckmann sings the broadly intervallic theme to Elegy's title track, its ambient-style approach to sound construction renders it not just the album's positional centrepiece, but its stylistic one as well. With heavy reverb on the piano, reverse-delay on Hollenbeck's cymbals and Tordini's muscular bowed bass merging seamlessly with Monder, the group extemporizes as the dynamics build to an inevitable climax, only to slowly dissolve, as Bleckmann returns to reiterate its challenging but memorable theme, this time with bowed bass, piano and drums acting is the primary foundation...until everyone fade, leaving Monder's densely layered guitar to gradually fade back to black.

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.

As much as Elegy aims for an ambient, texture-driven approach that looks to eschew overt virtuosity, it's difficult to deny the innate talent of every member of Bleckmann's group. As for Bleckmann? He's managed to trump his existing, impressive discography with this ECM leader debut in the most unassuming, subtly embellished manner possible. A record whose wonders reveal themselves more with each and every listen, Elegy is that rare leader debut where the confidence of its participants has placed them in a position with nothing left to prove...allowing everyone to focus away from themselves and more selflessly towards the substantial demands of the music.

Rating: 4 out of 5

John Kelman, January 20, 2017
© 2017 All About Jazz

Theo Bleckmann is a fascinating German-born cross-genre singer who has worked with Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass and John Zorn, and recently made a terrific album of Kurt Weill songs (A Clear Midnight) with the jazz pianist Julia Hulsmann. Elegy presents his own compositions, supported by an ideally attuned quartet including guitarist Ben Monder and drummer/composer John Hollenbeck, with the only cover being Sondheim’s Comedy Tonight (“Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight”), compellingly and very slowly delivered with a kind of stunned optimism.

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. The title track is stormy, dark and spinechillingly abstract; Cortege is a quirky funeral march; To Be Shown to Monks at a Certain Temple is spacious and poetic; Take My Life is a springy, Bach-tinged dance. 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.

Rating 4 out of 5

John Fordham, 9 February 2017
© 2017 Guardian News and Media

German-born, New York-resident singer Theo Bleckmann is one of the true vocal innovators, a voice-as-instrument musician who combines the sonic adventure of the New York avant-garde with the precision and arch intensity of Weimar cabaret. As the title implies, his leader debut for ECM is a set of self-composed reflections 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, Feb 16, 2017
© 2017 The Irish Times

Der aus Dortmund stammende, seit 1989 in New York lebende Vokalist und Komponist Theo Bleckmann hat sich mit seinen extravaganten Konzepten und seiner Experimentierfreude längst einen hervorragenden Namen im Spannungsfeld von zeitgenössischer Musik, Jazz, improvisierter Musik und Performancekunst gemacht. Er erregte mit seinen außergewöhnlichen Interpretationen von Charles Ives-Songs ebenso Aufsehen wie mit seiner gewagten Hommage an Kate Bush, seinem Mitwirken am Kurt Weill-Album der Pianistin Julia Hülsmann oder an diversen Projekten von Meredith Monk. Etwa fünfzehn konzeptionell ambitionierte Alben finden sich in seiner Diskographie, die er mit einer Reihe gleichgesinnter Musiker aufgenommen hat. Häufig waren die renommierten New Yorker Szene-Größen Ben Monder an der Gitarre und John Hollenbeck an den Drums beteiligt, die Theo Bleckmann nun mit zwei jungen Cracks vom Big Apple – dem Kontrabassisten Chris Tordini und dem aus Israel stammenden Pianisten Shai Maestro – für sein ECM-Debut zusammengebracht hat.

Auf „Elegy“ erweist sich Bleckmann einmal mehr als feinfühliger Ästhet und musikalischer Feinspitz, als talentierter Komponist und einfallsreicher Klangmaler. Zwölf Kompositionen, die Tod und Transzendenz thematisieren, hat er wohl auch als Reaktion auf den Tod seiner betagten Mutter zusammengestellt. Ihr hat er mit Stephen Sondheims „Comedy Tonight“ die einzige Fremdkomposition gewidmet, die er mit seinem klaren, geradlinigen und verlangsamten Gesang weg von aller Heiterkeit ins Nachdenkliche überführt. Dasselbe trifft auf seine stimmungsvolle Vertonung eines Zen-Gedichts aus dem 8. Jahrhundert zu, das rät, sich vom Tod nicht beeindrucken zu lassen und einfach im Leben weiterzugehen. Also nicht nur Düsternis, sondern auch Licht am Ende des Tunnels - Bleckmanns Texte zu „Fields“ und „Take My Life“, wozu er sich von der Bach-Kantate „Ich hab genug“ inspirieren ließ, schlagen in dieselbe Kerbe. In zwei Dritteln der Stücke verzichtet der Sänger auf jegliche Lyrics und setzt seine präzise und wandelbare Stimme rein instrumental zur Erzeugung zusätzlicher Klangfarben ein. Denn auf „Elegy“ geht es in erster Linie nicht um die Befriedigung solistischer Eitelkeiten – wenn auch diese exzellenten Musiker durchaus Bemerkenswertes abliefern -, sondern um das Kreieren musikalischer Atmosphäre. Dies geschieht mit großer Intensität und einem sicheren Gespür für das Erfinden und den wirkungsvollen Einsatz stimmungsvoller Klangfarben. Monder, Maestro, Tordini und Hollenbeck reizen in dieser Hinsicht die Möglichkeiten ihrer Instrumente ebenso aus wie Bleckmann jene seiner Stimme. Nicht zuletzt hat auch Produzent Manfred Eicher diesem Album seinen Stempel aufgedrückt, das vielleicht Theo Bleckmanns bislang bestes in einer Reihe bemerkenswerter Produktionen ist.

Peter Füssl, 21.02.2017
KULTUR - Zeitschrift für Kultur und Gesellschaft

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