He is the Zelig of jazz … and cabaret, vocal harmony, installation art and theatre: as comfortable opposite Laurie Anderson as he is Steve Coleman, and as skilled at exploring the louche vivacity of a Vegas floorshow as he is the bracing avant-gardism of Charles Ives. So it’s hardly surprising that vocalist Theo Bleckmann fits cozily within ECM’s sphere of artful ethereality. Indeed, the chameleonic Bleckmann has always maintained a beclouded sense of otherworldliness, though never as profoundly as here.
Backing Bleckmann is what he’s dubbed his “ambient” band, providing elegant accompaniment at once symbiotic and ghostly minimalist. The stellar foursome includes two of his longtime recording partners, guitarist Ben Monder and drummer John Hollenbeck, alongside keyboardist Shai Maestro and bassist Chris Tordini. The intent, says Bleckmann in the press materials, is to provide perspectives on death and transformation. Following a softly undulating instrumental prelude, he serves up an arrestingly somber reading of Stephen Sondheim’s “Comedy Tonight,” suggesting entrée into a haunted hall of mirrors.
The remaining pieces, most wordless, range from the free-floating “Fields” to the multi-shaded title track, skirting the gates of heaven and hell. Tucked among these gloriously imagined dreamscapes are two lyric-driven gems: the Bach-inspired “Take My Life,” a propulsive portrait of dying by inches; and “To Be Shown to Monks at a Certain Temple,” a joyous ode to living every moment, from an eighth-century poem by Zen-Buddhist Chiao Jan.