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Before & After with Vocalist Theo Bleckmann

Within vocal-jazz's tradition-blasting tradition

Betty Carter
Roswell Rudd
Mark Murphy
Mark Murphy
Theo Bleckmann

Theo Bleckmann’s voice has an otherworldly quality, somehow familiar yet unlike anything that came before it in the vocal-jazz canon. His subtle phrasing approaches its own discrete language of emotion, color and shape; he deploys an effortless control of diction; and his technical virtuosity will remind you that the voice was the original instrument.

On his most recent release, A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill and America (ECM), in collaboration with the Julia Hülsmann Quartet, his diaphanous tone and three-and-a-half-octave range hold a mirror up to Weill’s vital contributions straddling jazz and classical traditions. A crossover artist equally comfortable with the avant-garde, vocalese and the art songs of his native Germany, Bleckmann’s 2012 Grammy-nominated album with Kneebody, Twelve Songs by Charles Ives, had the same effect, as did his interpretations of Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush. What Is the Beautiful? , a 2011 tribute to proto-Beat poet Kenneth Patchen by John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet featuring Bleckmann and Kurt Elling, was performed at the Chicago Jazz Festival in September.

Despite his startling originality, Bleckmann, 49, emerges from a long countertradition of jazz vocalists who have resisted genre parameters and quite literally tested the limits of vocalization-Meredith Monk, Sheila Jordan and Bobby McFerrin among them. He recently sat down at his Downtown Manhattan apartment for his first Before & After session, to reflect on his influences and collaborators past and present.

1. Yma Sumac

“High Andes! (Ataypura!)” (from Voice of the Xtabay, Capitol). Sumac, vocals; Les Baxter, arranger, composer, with Moisés Vivanco and John Rose. Recorded in 1950.

BEFORE: It’s “4’33” by John Cage. [Music starts. ] Yma Sumac maybe? What is that?! Is it a man or is it a woman?

AFTER: Awesome. I hate that she’s always being treated as this kind of freak performer, because she could do so many things. She’s incredible to me. Oh, God. Oh, I want that. I could listen to that all day and not get bored.

2. Roswell Rudd

“Maiden Voyage” (from Flexible Flyer, Arista/Freedom). Rudd, trombone; Sheila Jordan, vocals; Hod O’Brien, piano; Arild Andersen, bass; Barry Altschul, drums. Recorded in 1974.

BEFORE: Is that Sheila? Oh, my God! This is Roswell Rudd. Of course!

AFTER: That’s wild. Leave this on. At this point I would have known. She blends so well. It’s incredible. This woman is an angel. It’s really interesting, because the way she’s improvising is not in a bebop, scatty kind of way. She’s just found her own thing. It’s really appropriate to the feel of the group and to the music. I think I heard this at Sheila’s on vinyl a long time ago. I’m so happy to see that Roswell is getting his due or is coming back into the spotlight. He’s just amazing, an incredible trombone player. And Sheila’s a wildcat. She went through a whole free-and-easy period where she was just going crazy-I love that. Everything she does is just sublime.

3. Meredith Monk

“Gotham Lullaby” (from Dolmen Music, ECM). Monk, vocals, piano. Recorded in 1981.

BEFORE: Meredith. “Gotham Lullaby”? Well, this is the most iconic Meredith piece. Björk recorded it, too, and she did it really beautifully. This is a continuation of the very abstract singing that Sheila was doing in a way, taking syllables and words and making something out of it that’s not scat singing. In Meredith’s work it really becomes language, or a second speech-like thing, so it takes it even further.

Meredith recently got the [National] Medal of Arts from Obama. I was so happy. It was one of those days where you think, “Oh, the world’s OK.” Sheila’s next, I hope. And the interesting thing about Meredith is that the form is quite set. The shapes and the events that happen are through-composed, and how many times the high figure is played out and then the melody goes down again-it’s all pretty much set. It sounds like she’s making this up on the spot, but if you hear it more than once you realize how precise it is.

But it’s hard to notate.

It’s impossible. And that’s partially why it’s so difficult to bring this music to the next generation, because you have to teach it-she has to be there with you. She taught me a few solo pieces. It was really labor-intensive. I went out to her house and we worked on one piece a day or something. It really is quite complex to find what my voice would be in this; it’s so idiosyncratic to her. It’s really amazing.

4. Mark Murphy

“Be-Bop Lives (Boplicity)” (from Bop for Kerouac, Muse). Murphy, vocals; Richie Cole, alto saxophone; Bruce Forman, guitar; Bill Mays, keyboards; Bob Magnusson, bass; Roy McCurdy, drums; Michael Spiro, congas. Recorded in 1981.

BEFORE: Mark Murphy, Bop for Kerouac, “Boplicity.” That was a record I listened to a lot. That was one of those LPs I had running and it just blew my mind, and still does. I actually just listened to some of it the other day. It’s very to the point, that brassy chest-voice kind of sound, strong and relaxed. And of course he swings. Richie Cole is on this.

It’s a great record. He’s influenced so many people, and his repertoire is always interesting. He picks really unusual songs and standards, and of course this record was a concept record. He was a bit nuts to do stuff like that, which I love. Yes, I bow to thee, Mark.

5. Vocal Summit

“Spiral Dance” (from Sorrow Is Not Forever-Love Is, Moers). Jay Clayton, Urszula Dudziak, Jeanne Lee, Bobby McFerrin, Lauren Newton. Recorded in 1982.

BEFORE: Is that Vocal Summit? I heard a little bit of Lauren Newton there. And Jeanne Lee! Bobby, of course, Jay Clayton and Urszula Dudziak. That was a true summit-everybody had their own thing. And they only made one record, and it’s nice because everybody on this record gets their spot. There’s Jay. See, unlike any other vocal group, at least from the vocal-group history that I have in my head, this was a completely new concept. First of all, they hardly used any lyrics. There were no song forms, and everybody was an individual, completely. It’s one guy and four women. And Urszula didn’t use any electronics on this gig. There she is!

Urszula also has an unbelievable range, like Yma Sumac. And of course Bobby is ridiculous, in his own universe. They were able to pull something like this off, which is a very simple riff, and just go nuts, improvise on it, make some sense out of it. And Jay, too-unbelievable. It’s great. Lauren Newton has been living in Europe, quite accomplished and really precise in what she does.

And there’s Jeanne Lee. Can we give her some love? She sort of receded all too far into the critical background. When I first arrived here in the late ’80s, I went to a concert and there she was. It was such a no-big-deal for everybody, but I was like, “That’s Jeanne Lee!” I was so star-struck. I think this group did a few concerts in other configurations, but it never had this kind of electricity. This kind of stuff falls of course with the performers and with their individuality.

6. Shelley Hirsch

“Songs in My Head” (from O Little Town of East New York, Tzadik). Hirsch, vocals; David Weinstein, electronic accompaniment. Recorded in 1992.

BEFORE: Is that Shelley Hirsch? That’s obviously Shelley. I went to a Shelley Hirsch concert at the old Knitting Factory [in New York City], maybe in ’91, ’92, and I was electrified. She’s an unbelievable performer. It’s a famous piece; I’ve never seen the whole piece. She is incredible. What she does in improv with lyrics I have never seen anyone do. She’s a master of taking anything, any snippet, and just going to the moon with it.

She did one of the Christian Marclay performances at the Whitney Museum, when Christian had a retrospective there a couple years ago, and she was wonderful. She’s somebody who sort of collages popular music and jazz and crazy opera, and words and poems, and things she read on the street. She’s just this vessel for everything that’s going on, like a radio station, and vocally [she’s] incredibly flexible. I did a project with Bob Ostertag, the electronic-music composer, and Shelley’s on the record. We’re touring it, and I hope that she’s going to be able to do it, because it would be nice to sing with her again. She’s incredible, and she’s skilled as a vocalist in a way I haven’t seen with a lot of other people. So fast, and everything at her fingertips at every moment.

7. Betty Carter

“Lonely House” (from September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill, Various Artists; Sony). Carter, vocals; Geri Allen, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Alvester Garnett, drums. Recorded in 1994.

BEFORE: Betty Carter? Just the “ooh,” dipping the pitch a little bit, I’m getting goose bumps because she’s one of the big jazz singers who I worship to no end. I saw her live in Germany once and it was ridiculous. I was young, but I think today I would still be as shocked by how she had everything in her hand and was in charge. She could be really tough and then so tender, like this. Just intense. There’s that silence and space and suspension that Shirley Horn has which I so appreciate.

AFTER: Is this the [Hal Willner-produced tribute to Kurt Weill]? She’s on that? She is really playing with intonation and pitch like only she can and like only a singer could, except maybe a trombone player or a string player, but there’s that breath in there and bending of the pitch, and she’s really reveling in it. It’s beautiful.

8. Joni Mitchell

“The Sire of Sorrow (Job’s Sad Song)” (from Turbulent Indigo, Reprise). Mitchell, vocals, guitar, keyboards, percussion; Wayne Shorter, soprano saxophone. Recorded in 1993.

BEFORE: Oh, Joni Mitchell. What can I say about Joni Mitchell? I hope she’s OK physically. I discovered Joni Mitchell late in life, actually through [her 2002 double-album] Travelogue. She wasn’t on my radar. I was busy listening to other stuff and doing other stuff, and then I listened to Travelogue. I remember when it had just come out. I was on tour with Laurie Anderson, and I sat on the plane and I was crying so much, because I finally understood. I was reading along in the booklet, and I had a middle seat, and I had to get up constantly to get more Kleenex. It was that kind of sobbing, just understanding something finally. It’s intense, and now of course, it’s the Bible. Her voice has changed so much, and I’m all for it. I love it on the old recordings and the new.

9. Phil Minton Quartet

“Spermin Spunk About” (from Mouthfull of Ecstasy, Les Disques Victo). Minton, Veryan Weston, vocals. Recorded in 1996.

BEFORE: Oh, David Moss. No? Oh, of course. I know who this is. He’s on that Bob Ostertag record too [1982’s Voice of America]. Phil Minton with Veryan Weston. Is that it?

It’s based on excerpts from Finnegans Wake.

I actually performed with [Minton] in Amsterdam once. He is the most captivating improviser of this kind of stuff that I’ve ever seen. You think it’s all random and weird sounds, but boy, when he opens his mouth you just have to listen. It’s incredible. One of the early concerts for me, as a teenager, was seeing him in duo with Veryan Weston, and I didn’t know, I just went. My girlfriend at the time, she still talks about how weird that was. For me, I loved it. It was so absurd.

He’s really unique. Everybody that we’ve listened to is unique in their own way, but as this kind of free improvisation, the extreme vocalization and the stuff that he does, he is really somebody who works in the moment. It sounds or seems self-indulgent sometimes, but when you go to see him perform you realize that he’s actually very connected to the moment of what’s going on and playing with that in a way that makes you listen really hard. That’s very unique, and it’s an incredible gift. It’s not just, “I can do this with my voice and I can twist it into this shape and make this weird sound and that weird sound”; it really has a different purpose, and I’ve learned a lot from seeing him perform. Of course, listening to him on record is one thing, but really seeing what he does in the moment is quite powerful for me, because that kind of stuff can easily get very gimmicky and very, “OK, you can do that,” like a checklist. But never with him.

10. Dominique Eade

“Something Cool” (from When the Wind Was Cool, RCA). Eade, vocals; Bob Malach, flute; Bruce Williamson, bass clarinet; Benny Golson, tenor saxophone; Peter Leitch, guitar; Steve Nelson, vibraphone; Fred Hersch, piano; James Genus, bass; Matt Wilson, drums. Recorded in 1997.

BEFORE: Dominique Eade! It’s early, right?

AFTER: I’ve never heard this. She’s a young little kiddie there. I love her. She was in New York then, I think, because we were singing a little bit together. We performed in a piece of Anthony Braxton’s, but we were friends and are still friends, doing these Palestrina Renaissance duets, and just getting our hands on whatever, to sing through it for fun. We always ended up laughing our heads off for no reason, just singing together.

She’s an incredible musician. She’s really accomplished and, let’s not forget, one of the best vocal teachers. [New England Conservatory] is churning out some of the great singers. And she’s incredibly sweet. This is beautiful.

11. Kurt Elling

“The More I Have You” (from Man in the Air, Blue Note). Elling, vocals; Laurence Hobgood, piano; Rob Amster, bass; Frank Parker Jr., drums and percussion. Recorded in 2003.

BEFORE: Kurt. I just did a gig with Kurt at the Chicago Jazz Festival. He wasn’t singing; he was actually reciting poetry and I was doing the singing part. It was a project of John Hollenbeck’s.

Kenneth Patchen?

Patchen, yeah. Kurt really comes out of the Mark Murphy tradition, but he totally has his own thing. I love his singing, I love his musicianship, I love the way he performs, because he’s truly in charge of what he’s doing. He’s committed-there’s no hesitation in what he does. He owns the space, and that’s powerful to me. He has an incredible voice, he chooses interesting material and he has this gift of speaking. He could be an actor-he’s just that strong. Great scatting.

12. Kate McGarry & Keith Ganz

“Can’t Help Loving That Man” (from Genevieve & Ferdinand, Sunnyside). McGarry, vocals; Ganz, guitar. Recorded in 2013.

BEFORE: Kate. That’s easy. Why isn’t she playing every festival? She’s the quintessential beautiful jazz singer, and when she varies a melody it’s actually better than the composer’s version. She has an unbelievable melodic gift, she has an incredible voice and I get lost when she sings. I just sit there and drool. It’s so beautiful, and she’s the most generous, most loving performer, and she reminds me, not in the sound or in any way, other than in her generosity, of Sheila, who has that generosity and that sweetness and also owns her material.

Kate chooses her songs based upon her personal experience, and it comes through because every song she sings is full of life. And that sound-oh, God! I just want to crawl into that sound. It’s like a nest. She swings her tush off. Kate also has that thing that Sheila has. She can be very, very soft, and then she can be really empowered, which is something that Cécile McLorin Salvant has too. There’s a lot of shading and sounds within one voice, which right now we’re sort of living in this one-timbre kind of taste that we have for singers. Betty Carter has it. She has so many sounds within her voice. Ella, of course Sarah, Billie, Carmen, they have all these facets and shades. Yma Sumac is the extreme of that, where you don’t even know it’s the same person. The fact that all these colors are within that one person is very powerful, and Kate has that. They’re strong together, just a perfect duo.

Like Ella and Joe Pass?

Yeah. I could listen to them for days and days. Kate I never tire of.

13. Jen Shyu & Jade Tongue

“Song for Naldo” (from Sounds and Cries of the World, Pi). Shyu, vocals, gat kim (two-string Taiwanese moon lute). Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: Nice yodeling. Oh, I know what this is. Is this Jen Shyu? She recently embarked on this whole Korean thing. It’s beautiful. Go, Jen! It’s impressive.

AFTER: She reminds me in a strange way of Lauren Newton, in that it’s really studied and precise and clear and straightforward, and incredibly considered. It’s beautiful. Jen is a great musician too. It’s interesting to hear her sing this with an English lyric. She can belt one out. It’s great. I’d love to see this live. You can tell that she has studied and knows her scales and all that, but she’s really into so many techniques.

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Originally Published