The Upshot: Jazz vocalist takes the concept of the human voice as instrument to new and shimmering places.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Theo Bleckmann has garnered a solid reputation for his distinctive interpretation of jazz singing. He’s not a belter or crooner, but a sort of ambient dreamweaver. So it’s no surprise to find that Elegy, his latest solo album and first for natural home ECM, is definitely not a set of genuine and faux standards. Working with equally forward-thinking guitarist Ben Monder, pianist Shai Maestro and a rhythm section, the German native and NYC resident mostly uses his voice as an instrument, avoiding actual words in favor of syllables. Sung in the same timbre as the bowing of a violin, Bleckmann bobs, weaves and soars over the backgrounds Monder et al provide him, imbuing songs like “The Mission,” “Wither” and “Cortegé” with an almost spiritual urgency – without saying a word. Monder often matches him with impressionistic waves of ringing single lines or feedback-ridden swells – the title track finds the pair of artistic soulmates in ecstatic harmony.
Bleckmann does do some songs with words, of course. “To Be Shown To Monks in a Certain Temple,” with lyrics taken from The Poetry of Zen, becomes a tone poem in this company’s atmospheric hands, while “Take My Life” slyly leavens its pop tones with rambunctious rhythms and a burning Monder solo. “Fields” hews closer to traditional jazz singing, but in an elongated form that allows Bleckmann to alter his phrasing as he sees fit. The most recognizable song here is undoubtedly Stephen Sondheim’s “Comedy Tonight,” from the musical A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, but even it gets filtered through Bleckmann’s unique sensibility, given a new vocal melody and slowed waaaaay down, yet with a lightness that keeps it from being a dirge. Though fettered by libretto, Bleckmann shows as much imagination with these songs as he does with the others.
A lot of jazz records with wordless vocals can be too sweet for their own good – cf. the Pat Metheny Group’s late 80s work. Though he avoids dissonance for its own sake, Bleckmann amazingly never descends into treacle, nor does he indulge in the usual nonsense syllables of typical scat singing. Instead he forges his own distinctive path on Elegy, taking the concept of the human voice as instrument to new and shimmering places.
DOWNLOAD: “Elegy,” “The Mission,” “Comedy Tonight”