Theo Bleckmann ‘Elegy’ (ECM) 3/5

ECM prides itself on promoting esoteric musical encounters, and often ones that border on the experimental side of the music tracks, and American vocalist Theo Bleckmann is a prime case in mind. There are elements of theatre, poetry, American songbook and classical piano all weaved into a single album. The accompaniment is sparse throughout and from the black and white imagery of the inner sleeve photos, one cannot but be taken back in time to the classic ECM promotion of the 1970s.
Relatively short in time, weighing in at just over the fifty minute mark, this album aims at cross-boundary fertilisation and is precisely the kind of undertaking that Manfred Eicher would approve, which is presumably why Bleckmann and co have been invited to record at the Avatar studios in New York, Eicher’s de facto North American studio of choice. This writer warmed to the choral influenced largely wordless vocals of the leader and these are best sampled on the angelic sounding piece, ‘To be shown to monks at a certain temple’, which is as Zen as the title suggests and taken from Zen poetry as a matter of fact. Several brief pieces are really an excuse for pianist Shai Maestro to showcase his lovely pianistic skills and vignettes such as, ‘Semblance’ and ‘Littlefield’ both impress. Elsewhere, the wordless vocals are supplemented by layered guitar as on the title track, or the atmospheric improvisation of, ‘The mission’, which has no obvious structure to it. A more reflective side to the ensemble playing is to be found on, ‘Fields’, where guitarist Ben Monder engages in some Pat Metheny inflected licks while there is delicate percussive work from drummer John Hollenbeck. All but one of the numbers are originals. However, the one exception is a piano plus voice-led interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s, ‘Comedy tonight’. Possibly, re-reading other American songbook numbers might prove to be fertile terrain for a future album project.

Tim Stenhouse