The Upshot: Mack the Knife, and Weill in general, gets sharpened anew at the hands of a German pianist and a New York vocalist.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
The music of theatrical composer Kurt Weill has long enraptured forward-thinking musicians, from jazz to rock. On A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill in America, German pianist Julia Hülsmann is the latest acolyte, taking on the master’s work with not only her working Quartet, but also the German-born/NYC-based singer Theo Bleckmann. Hülsmann gets the elephant to leave the room immediately by beginning with “Mack the Knife,” Weill’s most famous composition due to Bobby Darin’s hit and the popularity of its theatrical origin The Threepenny Opera. But this version has little in common with either tradition or Darin – instead, Hülsmann and Bleckmann cast the song as an atmospheric ballad, with lightly brushed drums, mournful trumpet courtesy of Tom Arthurs, Bleckmann’s haunted tenor and the leader’s sedate melodicism.
Indeed, that approach serves the group well on the rest of the program. The singer, in particular, shines – his contemplative, even lonely tone keeps the bombast so many singers bring to Weill’s work at a far distance. Recasting numbers as popular as “September Song,” “Speak Low” and “Alabama Song” or as lesser-known as “Your Technique,” “This is New” and the evocatively expansive “Great Big Sky” in Hülsmann’s Eurojazz image works beautifully. The band also culls the oeuvre of poet Walt Whitman, with whom Weill felt an affinity, for a meandering, enigmatic “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” a vibrant, rhythmic “Beat! Beat! Drums” and the especially gorgeous title track. With graceful intent and a fine touch, Hülsmann, Bleckmann and company revive Weill’s work while avoiding clichés and putting their own spin on a classic songbook.
DOWNLOAD: “A Clear Midnight,” “Mack the Knife,” “Speak Low”