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Theo Bleckmann: Elegy

John Kelman By

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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.

Track Listing: Semblence; Comedy Tonight; Fields; The Mission; Littlefields; Elegy; To Be Show to Monks at a Certain Temple; Cortège; Elegy, var.; Take My Life; Wither; Alate.

Personnel: Theo Bleckmann: voice; Ben Monder: guitar; Shai Maestro: piano; Chris Tordini: double bass; John Hollenbeck: drums.

Title: Elegy | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: ECM Records


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