Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Julia Hulsmann Quartet with Theo Bleckmann, A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill and America

Kurt Weill wrote some of the most lyrical and compelling songs of the last century. Many of them have entered the repertoire of jazz though the years, as done in many different ways by some of our greatest artists. I won't rehearse a list here, you need only to think of "My Ship" or "Mack the Knife" to think of some iconic versions.

Julia Hulsmann, her quartet and vocalist Theo Bleckmann enter that fertile territory with a special album centered around Weill gems known and less-known. The album is entitled A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill and America (ECM 2418).

The program generally concerns itself with Weill's American period but also with a song written about America while he was still in Europe, the "Alabama Song." It further gives us songs written by Julia to the poetry of Walt Whitman, who was a Weill favorite. So we get the songs "A Clear Midnight," "A Noiseless Patient Spider," and "Beat! Beat! Drums!"

The idea of jazz realizations of art songs is at the forefront. Note the quartet of Hulsmann on piano, with her sophisticated voicings and brilliant but brief solo moments, Tom Arthurs on trumpet and flugel with a sort of post-Milesian lyricism, and the very subtle and introspective presence of the rhythm team of Marc Muellbauer on double bass and Heinrich Kobberling on drums. They make fine music. Marc Muellbauer arranges four of the songs and does a very singularly great job.

The tempos tend to be slow to allow vocalist Theo Bleckmann space for his deft articulation of the lyric content in a retrospective mood. He sometimes nicely substitutes alternate melody tones in a particular song, which gives us something uniquely different and, once you get used to it, quite artful. He is very musical, subdued and almost starkly concrete in the most excellently moody way.

There are songs in the mix that are not well-known, like "Your Technique," "River Chanty" and "Great Big Sky," all done in special ways, satisfying; then there are the very well known songs such as "Mack the Knife," "September Song," and "Speak Low." The stunning arrangements and performances put the music in a special place, whether it is Weill, earlier or later, or Julia's Whitman songs.

It is a contemporary noir-atmospheric Weill album with the very appropriately inspired performances of Bleckmann, Hulsmann, Arthurs and the rhythm team. It makes for music that creates a world you enter at first tentatively, then with increasing appreciation as you hear the music again and again. It is not a greatest hits sort of album, surely, but it affords us an even greater appreciation of Weill with obscurities as well as standards, all unveiling a sort of new take on Weill through its special musical reworkings.

It is very ECM in its atmospherics yet it is also an album like no other. Stunning! It seems to fit a mood today. Weill could brilliantly capture a gestalt, a zeitgeist, certainly, but he is given a great lift into the present on this outstanding offering. Fabulous!

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