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Reviews: At Night - Theo Bleckmann, Ben Monder

Reviews: 1

Site review by ramesh October 5, 2008
Performance:   Sonics:  
In a recent profile of the conductor-composer Esa-Pekka Salonen for the 'Los Angeles Times', Salonen noted, 'As a European modernist, he had been inculcated with negatives, such as to avoid melody, harmonic identity and rhythmic pulse. 'Only after a couple of years here [ in LA ] did I begin to see that the European canon I blindly accepted was not the only truth. Over here, I began to think about this rule that forbids melody. It's madness!'

The singer-composer Theo Bleckmann was born in Germany, and emigrated some years ago to the musical free-for-all of New York. Although he doesn't appear to have had a classical music training, in a sense he observes Salonen's own transplantation, but from opposite sides of the fence. The ten selections on this well-filled disc range from two to ten minutes in duration, and include his own idiosyncratic takes on Joni Mitchell's 'Sunday', as well as the Beatles' 'Norwegian Wood'. His collaborators are the veteran electric guitarist Ben Monder, and Satoshi Takeishi variously on drums, percussion, and computer processing of the vocals.

Although this music is labelled as 'jazz', it is cross-genre music of a high order. Three of the songs are translated settings of quite famous verses by Rumi, the 13th century Persian who is generally considered the greatest Islamic poet. In several selections, Bleckmann reworks the relatively simple harmonic and melodic signatures of pop with an exploratory, often eccentric concentration on texture and timbre-- not unlike European classical modernism, but with completely different end results. Jazz purists may look askance at some of his creations, but they cannot deny the invigorating nature of this cross-genre fusion. The processed vocalise at the start of 'Carbon' sounds weirdly like an electronic didgeridoo, before drums and electric guitar enter. The treatment of the Lennon-McCartney 'Norwegian Wood' seems to take off where Cathy Berberian's singing of 'A Ticket To Ride' left off. This Beatles classic commences with a metallic, feedback-distorted electric guitar solo, with no discernible references to the piece. It's quite a surprise when Bleckmann enters with a lilting rendition of the lyrics. The piece then loops back on itself with layered, visceral guitar riffs. Mitchell's 'Sunny Sunday' is memorable, sung in Bleckmann's light tenor, with ruminative, subdued guitar and percussion backing.

This quote from Rumi, sung in the penultimate track, sums the mood of this fine album : 'At night we fall into each other with such grace, When it's light, you throw me back like you do your hair. Your eyes now drunk with God, mine with looking at you, one drunkard takes care of another.'

The 24bit/ 88.2 kHz recording is superb. The singer is miked relatively closely. Generally electric guitar/ electronically processed recordings sound quite flat in soundstage terms compared to pure acoustic instruments. However, this is mitigated in this production, which offers the sense of sitting in the front row of an intimate jazz club.