Grammy-nominated vocalist and contemporary composer Theo Bleckmann is bringing a new quartet to The Jazz Gallery for a full evening of songs. The program includes compositions from four corners of the musical map, creating a cross-generational, multimodal backdrop over which Bleckmann and his band will freely explore. The band includes pianist Mike King, bassist Chris Tordini, and drummer Ulysses Owens. Read on for Bleckmann’s thoughts on the new band and his approach to programming a concert of old and new music.
The Jazz Gallery: To start, I must say that I love the band that you’ve put together for this show, with Mike King, Chris Tordini and Ulysses Owens.
Theo Bleckmann: I do too. Have you heard Mike King play?
TJG: Not in person, but I’ve heard recordings.
TB: He’s amazing. He can play edgy and hard, but he also has a lyrical side that is just completely mesmerizing. I realized how amazing he was when we did a soundcheck, and he started playing “Skylark.” I joined him, and it just worked beautifully. Skylark was just a random tune, yet he played it so sensitively, so spaciously, with such beautiful voicings. It had so much emotion and space. He gets a sound out of the piano. That sealed the deal.
TJG: Do you have the words to describe how it felt?
TB: It felt like we didn’t have to talk about anything. It was just clear how the music should go. When you find someone you really like to play with, you don’t have to talk all that much about what needs to happen. You both take each other to a place that feels right.
TJG: Are there specific ways that you feel Mike adapts to your voice?
TB: Mike is his own person. He has his own viewpoint when playing. He plays lyrically, very hard and aggressively, which I really like. It’s not just one personality or one sound. His playing is as deep as a real person. Sometimes it’s mad, sometimes it’s sweet. It’s not just one color. I appreciate that.
TJG: What starts to happen when you get Chris and Ulysses into the mix?
TB: We’ll see! I’ve been playing with Ulysses for three years now, I just love his playing: His drumming makes me smile. As soon as he starts to play, my heart opens up. It’s this magical feeling that I can’t name. I’ve played with Chris many times as well. The first time was in John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet when Chris was subbing for Drew Gress. I hired Chris for my last ECM record, Elegy. He has a beautiful sound, he has all the makings of a musician I like to work with, and he’s also extremely nice [laughs]. He’s open to not having to solo on every other song, and the same is true for Mike and Ulysses. The musicians I like to work with are interested in the shape of things, not necessarily on being ‘important soloists.’ They’re interested in creating something together.
TJG: You said Ulysses makes you smile when he plays. When you imagine this new quartet, does anything make you smile? Anything you imagine happening that you’re excited to discover?
TB: Well, the repertoire is deliberately all over the place. We’re doing some German music, some Schubert, Kurt Weill, “Comedy Tonight” from my last album, an adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim song. We’re doing Kate Bush, my own writing, a P!nk cover, a Renaissance piece, Henry Purcell, Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, The Beatles… Are there any standards? Let me look. Wow! There are no standards in the set. I love it! How fantastic. It didn’t even concern me whether there was one or not. How about that. That’s amazing.
TJG: That’s quite a collection of music. It almost sounds like a film, where you’re the music director, and you said “This scene will have this song, this scene will have that song, and we’ll drop this song in when people least expect it.”
TB: Yeah, exactly. I mean, it’s not a variety show, and they all sound of one cloth, especially when playing with musicians that have such a distinct sound and feel. It’s all going to sound more or less like it’s coming from the same source. But with different musical languages, it changes things around a bit. We’ll see, I’ve never done this program before. We’re doing this show again at The Kennedy Center the week after, so this is our first run of the new program.
TJG: Henry Purcell jumps out at me from the setlist. How you decided to arrange it?
TB: It’s “When I am laid in earth” from the opera Dido and Aeneas. I arrange it for loops, just myself, set up the mood, and then it transforms into the band. I’ve sung some of Purcell’s music just for myself, but this is probably the only piece of Purcell’s that I have done publicly.
TJG: When you jump from Purcell to, let’s say, Nina Simone, audience members will be floored, I’m sure. I think they’ll be amazed that you thought to put them together.
TB: Both are songs, both talk about certain human topics, they both have melody, harmony, rhythm. I hope the audience is amazed by the fact that this music is obviously related. My hope is for relations like “Yeah, oh, of course you can put those songs next to each other without any problem!” If you can execute it, you know, if you can play it, if you can mean it, if you can make an arrangement that’s not contrived or too tricked-out or clever, then absolutely.
TJG: Are there any songs on the list that you’re particularly itching to sing, to discover what’s going to happen?
TB: Yes. There are two Kurt Weill pieces that I’ve never done with a full band, which I’m really itching to do. There’s one called “Cannon Song,” and another called “As You Make Your Bed.” They’re both Kurt Weill at his strongest, so I’m excited for that. I’m eager to hear how the band will sound on the P!nk song, “God is a DJ,” because I’ve only done that with piano and voice, so to do that with drums and bass will be fun to hear.
TJG: This is an exciting set.
TB: It’s wild. It’s all over the place. Hah!
TJG: And you’ll be including originals, you said?
TB: Oh yes. “Another Holiday,” “Happiness,” “To Be Shown To Monks At A Certain Temple,” plus a few more of my own pieces.
TJG: Are you using the stories in the songs to build a narrative across the program?
TB: A narrative will develop, but I don’t know if just because things have lyrics, they have to be narrative from A to B to C. It doesn’t have to be linear necessarily, but that’s something I will have to sit with and think about. I’m a little weary of narratives where people feel the audience has to take something away from the show, a story-line beyond what the song is concerned with. Here, the broad idea is of freedom. Freedom of repertoire, of choice, of playing a song that’s really out there, of playing a song that’s in one key the whole time, or one chord. To be free to do whatever I feel I want and need to be doing. That’s the overall idea.
TJG: Did you approach The Jazz Gallery with this idea? When did the idea start?
TB: The idea began with The Kennedy Center, who put me on Renée Fleming’s series called “Voices.” The series highlights vocalists who do unusual things and have unusual viewpoints about how to use their voice. That puts me in the category of “I’m doing something unusual” though my singing, how I use my voice, and using techniques and effects, but also in how I program and what songs I choose.
TJG: I see you’ve been doing some singing with Michael Mayo. What are your thoughts about working with younger vocalists whose voices and sensibilities are still developing? Does it inspire the way you conduct your craft?
TB: We’ve been jamming at my place, and I presented him at Vocal Mania, a series that happens every month featuring a singer from New York. We’re performing in duo together at St. Peter’s Church next week. When I was growing up, there were not a lot of jazz singers, especially young jazz singers. Now, I have seven students at Manhattan School. These young vocalists today are amazing. The stuff that young singers are coming up with and doing is fantastic. It’s super fun, they’re fresh, they’re able, excited, well-schooled, a lot of them know the tradition, they can read, they’re interested in other kinds of music. We’re all influencing each other. It’s great to hear people continuing in an art form that was once so marginal and so small. It’s a really exciting time.
Vocalist Theo Bleckmann plays The Jazz Gallery on Tuesday, March 26, 2019. Mr. Bleckmann will be joined by Mike King on piano, Chris Tordini on bass, and Ulysses Owens on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.