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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by John Labbé.

Photo by John Labbé.

Any introductory sentence introducing Theo Bleckmann winds up being either underwritten, or convoluted, or a run-on. This is because Bleckmann has his ears and singing voice in so many different fields; he’s like a musical octopus. How do you appropriately sum up a musician who, in the past five years, has toured with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, collaborated with Meredith Monk, the New York Philharmonic, the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble and Laurie Anderson alike, channeled Elvis via Schumann at the Stone, received “Best” labels in both jazz and opera polls…ack, it’s too much.

Bleckmann will bring his multitudes to The Jazz Gallery with a handpicked quintet on October 3rd. We caught up with him via phone, after rehearsal.

The Jazz Gallery: What rehearsal did you have today?

Theo Bleckmann: It was for a guest appearance on Shai Maestro’s gig at the Jazz Standard. I wrote some lyrics to Shai’s songs, and wrote lyrics for Ziv Ravitz, the drummer in the trio. I’m going to perform those tomorrow.

TJG: What will an average working day look like for you? What percent is rehearsing and what percent is composing?

TB: It’s so crazy and unpredictable that usually I’m looking ahead of what I have to do and preparing for the next thing—and then whatever is left I can use for myself. My composing process is very unpredictable and erratic. I’m not a composer who sits down every morning and writes a sketch. When I’m on the road, or when I have a piano in front of me, I get inspired. It’s very unpredictable, and I try to allow for that to not freak me out.

TJG: You’ve performed duos with Ben Monder, and John Hollenbeck, and Shai Maestro, who make up 4/5 of your quintet at your Gallery gig. [Chris Tordini is on bass.] Is it disorienting to play with these guys in this setting?

TB: Absolutely. Because everybody is so complete unto themselves that I have to figure out how to have them shine within the group—just trying to rotate them. All of them can pull out anything at any time. It’s almost an embarrassment of riches. I’m just learning how to use them best in this context, and not to be afraid to have them do less than they do normally.


TJG: How are you orchestrating for this group?

TB: My struggle lies within my writing being very, very notated. Even when it’s chords, I’m very particular on what voicing I want. As we’re playing this music more and more, I let go of that. Musicians suggest something else—sometimes it’s a struggle, but most of the time it’s for the best.

Initially, I would say I write out 100% except for the improv section. I try to find improvisation that’s not necessarily on a set of chord changes always. I try to figure out if there are other ways that we can improvise together. A lot of it happens in a rehearsal space—it’s hard to conceive of something without hearing it.

TJG: You’re very involved with the opening of National Sawdust, a new classical- and experimental-oriented venue in Williamsburg. How is the New York experimental music scene doing? Are there enough outlets?

TB: I think there are. Experimental music is such a cursed word because it means we’re experimenting in front of you, and it might not work, but that’s not how I see experimental music. I think it’s just a respectful place to present cutting edge music that’s happening now.

TJG: You’re involved in so many musical worlds. What’s your listening process for discovering all of it?

TB: Most of it is through friends and recommendations. I’ve been listening an Aaron Parks ECM record, which is quite beautiful. That’s a little bit of a palette cleanser, right between Debussy and modern jazz. I’ve been listening to Johan Johansson a lot. And now with Apple Music I’m just going wild, listening to all the pop music and all the 90s rock bands that I had not heard.

But a lot of times I don’t listen to music. Because I need headspace and just I can’t—there’s just not one more note that fits into my head at the time. So I just listen to podcasts.

TJG: You’re known for your deep dives into one particular artist’s music, whether it’s Kate Bush or Charles Ives. How do you decide on a particular project or musician?

TB: I have to love the music from every angle: the melodies, the rhythms, the lyrics. And I have to have a certain relationship to the music personally. The underdog and the weirdness of Charles Ives still appeals to me greatly. The odd form, the strange compositional shape, and the weird accompaniment—it goes into performance art or dada-ist art. Or Kate Bush, again, I think weird, strange, underdog, off the beaten path, experimental layering of sounds. All of that appealed to me: someone who’s a bit strange, trying to create something new.


TJG: You teach at the Manhattan School of Music. What are you still learning?

TB: Technique is a never-ending subject. I still work with Jeannette LoVetri, a phenomenal technique teacher who has also brought me into some scientific research of the voice. I’m very interested in that. I have to have an instrument that’s well balanced, and that takes a lot of maintenance. If I just sing standards—your instrument is calibrated to do a certain thing. But for me to do high falsetto singing and then really low, like Wagner with Uri Caine, I have to have different sets of registers and different balances available. That doesn’t come from sitting at home watching TV. I try to go through a lesson a day, an hour or two of vocal work.

TJG: What can we expect to hear at The Gallery with the quintet?

TB: It’s mostly my compositions, with maybe two or three very, very odd and strangely ethereal arrangements of standards. [Laughs] I’ve been quite inspired by Morton Feldman recently. And I wrote an arrangement of “True Love” and also an arrangement of “Comedy Tonight,” by Sondheim.

Theo Bleckmann + Band performs at The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, October 3rd, 2015. The group features Theo Bleckmann on voice, Ben Monder on guitar, Shai Maestro on piano, Chris Tordini on bass, and John Hollenbeck on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.