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Big Ears Festival 2017

Mark Sullivan By

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German-American vocalist Theo Bleckmann recently made his ECM Records debut with Elegy. His quintet features guitarist Ben Monder (who he has worked with for over 20 years), as well as pianist Nitai Hershkovits (subbing for Shai Maestro) and the rhythm team of bassist Chris Tordini and drummer John Hollenbeck. The set opened with vocalise accompanied only by the piano; as the rest of the band joined in, their sensitivity to texture and dynamics quickly became apparent. When Bleckmann stopped to introduce the band, he explained that the music from Elegy was meant to be about death and transcendence, hoping that it wouldn't come across as depressing. He also teased right-hand man Monder by mentioning that he had won a Grammy for his work on David Bowie's final album (an accomplishment which Monder apparently doesn't like to make much of). The title tune featured guitar soundscapes and voice with considerable electronic modification—something that Bleckmann did throughout the performance, as a normal extension of his singing—which included looping and bass transposition. "Happiness" was an earlier song about the elusiveness of happiness, but it included an ebullient piano solo, and a bass solo. He introduced his cover of Stephen Sondheim's "Comedy Tonight" saying he took a happy song and made it really sad. True, but it was also a remarkably creative rearrangement, which included a beautiful unaccompanied piano solo and some of the overtone singing Bleckmann learned during his 15 years in Meredith Monk's ensemble. "Take My Life" opened with an amazing unaccompanied introduction by Hollenbeck, employing an array of metallic percussion. A terrific performance by the whole band, and another festival highlight.

Theo Bleckmann and Ben Monder played a duet show the next day at The Standard. They have a long history of doing this, and drew on compositions from both of them (plus two covers). Bleckmann's "Orchard" and Monder's "Lake" showed the pair's conventional jazz side, voice and fingerstyle guitar with no electronic modifications. Before long the singer began adding harmonizer and looping to the mix. The standard "I Remember You" was treated to a humorous electronic stuttering effect, Johnny Mercer's famous lyrics periodically frozen—Monder created a massive looped buildup during his solo section, taking the song even further from its Great American Songbook roots. But that was nothing compared to the arrangement of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" that closed the set. It began with vocal noises, overtone singing, and strummed overdriven guitar chords. When Bleckmann started singing the well-known words and melody over that backdrop it came as a complete surprise. Proof, as if any was required by then, that with this duo just about anything could happen.

Cup (Nels Cline & Yuka C. Honda)

Guitarist Nels Cline is best known now as a member of Wilco, but for many years he was active in the West Coast improvisation community. He partnered with his wife and multi-instrumentalist Yuka C. Honda (best known as half of the heady trip-hop duo Cibo Matto) as Cup. The performance began with a gentle guitar loop, which Cline sang over- -the first evidence of what was likely pre-composed material. Then he began to build up the first of many dense guitar drones. Honda had some synthesizer soundscapes going, but there appeared to be technical issues with her rig, so her input was minimal at first. With that sorted out, she played a pretty synthesizer melody over more guitar arpeggios, and the pair took the first pause in the set (almost halfway). The music quickly got more frenetic after that, a mixture of drones and drum programs. Cline took several true guitar solos: one with trademark snaking chromatic lines, another a manic one with a wobbly electronic vibrato effect...culminating with him singing into his Fender Jazzmaster's pickups. Cline played like a man possessed: he made sounds I have never heard before with his array of electronic effects. The last part of the set was built around another song, Cline singing about flying fish (among other things), Honda answering with "I've seen them." Reminded me of the Doors, an unexpected stylistic reference point.

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