Photo: Lynne Harty
Multifaceted jazz vocalist Theo Bleckmann is poised to release his new album Elegy on January 27, marking his debut as a leader on ECM. (Get it from Amazon.) This record marks the next stage in his career—which seems to be on an upward arc over the past few years—and represents the most mature statement yet of his artistic vision.
Elegy is a series of meditations on death and transcendence, but it never falls into morbidity or depression, but rather peacefully examines these transitions with a certain sense of detachment. Bleckmann and his group, composed of guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Chris Tordini, keyboardist Shai Maestro and drummer John Hollenbeck, approach their collective sound with an emphasis on ambience and atmosphere, a perfect accompaniment to the subject matter at hand and a perfect fit for the ECM aesthetic.
The album begins with one of three short instrumental pieces, “Semblance,” before segueing into the Stephen Sondheim-penned “Comedy Tonight.” Normally a jubilant number, here the song is given a somber and melancholic feel, and is dedicated to Bleckmann’s mother who passed away. This rendition is one of the more immediate pieces, as many other songs impart a drifting sort of ambience, enthralling if not a bit ethereal and ghostly. Much of the album deftly alternates between these two poles, structure versus looseness.
The more atmospheric mood certainly defines one of the album’s other focal points, the title track. On “Elegy,” Bleckmann leads the group with a wordless vocal, paired at first with swells of seemingly Frippertronics-inspired guitar ambience from Monder, and then cycling through duet-like passages with the other members of the band. The track does slowly build in volume, but never reaches the point of being jarring in the context of the rest of the material. “To Be Shown to Monks at a Certain Temple” picks up the mood from the title track, which immediately precedes it, but adds a stronger rhythmic foundation, contributing to the ebb and flow of the album’s progression.
“Take My Life”, while not the closing track, brings the final section of the album into focus. Once again, in contrast to some of the other pieces, this is more conventionally song-like, coming across like a modern jazz group covering Bon Iver. Here, as does throughout much of Elegy, Ben Monder‘s guitar solos cut into the song at the perfect moment, his electric tone providing just enough grit to really give the song impact. And the lyrical refrains here, such as “fill my lungs with silence” and “no other god but silence,” really bring the overall mood of the album into focus. It is a mixture of the discomfort of considering one’s own mortality combined with an overarching sense of peace, letting go of the difficulties of the waking life.
ECM’s quieter aesthetic often allows the listener to see a different side of a bandleader who chooses to work with the label. For Theo Bleckmann, working with ECM is a natural fit, and before releasing Elegy, he’s already proven that point as a sideman on albums by Meredith Monk and Julia Hülsmann. For Bleckmann, Elegy is the perfect combination of vision, players and record label, and feels like the release he’s been working toward for quite some time. His original takes both as a vocalist and a composer reveal an important maturity, and Elegy is an album not to be overlooked.