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Theo Bleckmann and the Julia Hülsmann Trio at The Stone

Tyran Grillo BY

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Theo Bleckmann and the Julia Hülsmann Trio
The Stone
A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill and America
New York, NY
June 21, 2015

In late June of 2015, vocalist Theo Bleckmann held residency at New York's The Stone. The venue's interdisciplinary hipness was epitomized by Bleckmann's week-long tenure, during which his offerings spanned the gamut from solo improvisations and the music of Kate Bush to the presentation of Kurt Weill songs reviewed here. For this summer solstice performance, he was joined by a trio consisting of pianist Julia Hülsmann, drummer Heinrich Köbberling, and a talented young replacement brought in at the last minute for Hülsmann's regular bassist Marc Muellbauer. The set list was a near replica of their ECM album (featuring also trumpeter Tom Arthurs) entitled A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill and America, released just three months before, although the concert proceeded a bit more adventurously than that meticulously crafted studio session.

It was pleasure to experience, up close and personal, this unprecedented band and its interpretations of the Weill songbook. In particular, witnessing the modest ensemble of gadgetry by which Bleckmann mixed and manipulated his voice in real time lent a tactility of execution knowable only in a live setting. Whether in the echo applied to the threadbare "Mack the Knife" or the digital looping of "Little Tin God" and its helical arpeggios, his voice worked a chameleonic magic through every lyric. Where some might prime emotional canvases but never paint them, Bleckmann proved himself the wielder of a fully thespian palette, embodying colors with the presence of a stage performer. The come-hither valleys and falsetto peaks in "Your Technique" made an already-sultry song even sultrier, while his controlled slur, combined with Hülsmann's bar crawl across the keyboard, gave "Applejack" just the slant it needed to come to inebriated life.

Hülsmann proved a force of her own to be reckoned with as she carried the trio with surefire wit and integrity. Her fingers soared in the lesser-performed "Great Big Sky," expanded "Who am I" (set to words by Ogden Nash) to unforeseeable lengths, and enriched her own settings of Walt Whitman, "Beat Beat Drums!" and "A Noiseless Patient Spider," with characteristic robustness. Both were equally vivid showcases for Bleckmann's talents at evocation, and showed the quartet at its most unified. Of that unity, one could hardly ignore the rhythm section's strict attention to detail as it navigated the forlorn courting of "September Song" (further noteworthy for Bleckmann's overtone singing and music box coda) and the rainy night tracery of "Speak Low."

The dedication with which Bleckmann and company approached these songs was superseded only by their obvious comfort with one another. Before the performance began, the band congregated in a corner behind the piano, sharing laughter before gingerly stepping into the foreground. That they were able to transition so intuitively into their material showed a deep internalization of everything they played, and a willingness to discover along with their audience the newness that chance can bring.

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