A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill And America (ECM)
Julia Hülsmann Quartet with Theo Bleckmann
Released March 6, 2015
DownBeat Four-and-a-Half-Star Review
Pianist Julia Hülsmann and singer Theo Bleckmann, in a first collaborative recording, celebrate the “unsung Weill” alongside the master’s best-loved works including “Mack The Knife”, “Speak Low” and “September Song”, adding also Julia’s settings of Walt Whitman, with whom Kurt Weill felt an affinity. The project came together at the instigation of the Kurt Weill Festival in Dessau in 2013 and since then has gained new life on the road and been fine-tuned in this studio recording made in Oslo in June 2014 with Manfred Eicher as producer. It marks a musical advance for the Hülsmann group at a number of levels, and these recastings of Weill open up new imaginative possibilities for the players. Bassist Marc Muellbauer brings his arranging skills to the fore on “Your Technique”, “September Song”, “This Is New” and “River Chanty”. English trumpeter and flugelhornist Tom Arthurs, who made his debut with Hülsmann on In Full View is fully integrated on A Clear Midnight. Often his trumpet doubles or underpins Bleckmann’s singing, sometimes surrounding the vocals with a halo of sound. Bleckmann’s intimate delivery, Hülsmann’s sense for the bare-boned ballad, and the discreet arrangements put a well-deserved focus on the lyrics, including the very fine song texts of Langston Hughes, Ogden Nash, Maxwell Anderson, Ira Gershwin and Ann Ronnell – as well as Marc Blitzstein’s brilliantly-vivid adaptation of Brecht, which gave “Mack The Knife” immortality. “The emphasis on slow tempos was made almost intuitively,” says Hülsmann. “These wonderful lyrics seem to me to demand that you give them space – and give the listener time to really follow the words”.
Over the years the music of Weill has been interpreted in countless ways but the jazz band remains an especially apt context. Weill, the German-born composer who became a US citizen – and one of the most passionate advocates of American constitutional values – hailed jazz enthusiastically as “the rhythm of our time” and called it “an international folk music of the broadest consequence.” In the Hülsmann group and singer Bleckmann he has German interpreters who share his perspectives on the all-embracing potential of the music, and find in it the freedom to be themselves. This includes, in one instance, the freedom to pass over Weill’s melody in favour of Julia’s own, for a setting of Walt Whitman’s “Beat! Beat! Drums!”. Julia furthermore sets Whitman’s meditational text “A Clear Midnight” (“This is the hour O soul …Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done”) and brings music to “A Noiseless Patient Spider”, another beautifully-observed Whitman poem.
Although A Clear Midnight is the first shared project of Hülsmann and Bleckmann the principals have been exchanging notes for a long time. “I met Theo in 1993, when he was giving a workshop at the Hochschule der Kunst in Berlin,” Hülsmann recalls, “and ever since then, we’ve stayed in touch. When the Kurt Weil Festival proposed a joint project I jumped at it. I’d waited all these years for such an opportunity.”
A Clear Midnight is Julia Hülsmann’s fifth ECM appearance. It follows the trio albums The End of A Summer (recorded 2008) and Imprint (2010), the quartet album In Full View and the collaborative album Fasil with guitarist Marc Sinan (2008). She has a long history of working with words (including those of E.E. Cummings and Emily Dickinson) and unlocking the music they contain, with singers including Rebekka Bakken and Roger Cicero. Her activities are broad. In 2014 she was the Moers Festival’s Improviser In Residence.
Theo Bleckmann is multi-disciplinary in outlook and experiences. A Clear Midnight is the vocalist’s first ECM appearance in a jazz context, although he has recorded for the label as a member of the Meredith Monk Ensemble on “mercy” (2002) and “impermanence” (2007). Since 1989 he has been a resident of New York, where his early champions included the great jazz singer Sheila Jordan. Bleckmann has sung everything from Charles Ives to Kate Bush songs to Shakespearean sonnets and collaborated with improvisers across the idioms. He will be an Artist In Residence at New York’s The Stone in June, performing in diverse configurations, including the Hülsmann Band.
Tom Arthurs “is ingenious in the way he can make a line seem at once rhapsodically free and focused”, as Ivan Hewett wrote in the UK’s Daily Telegraph. As an improviser he has played with John Surman, Jack DeJohnette, Evan Parker, Kenny Wheeler, Eddie Prévost and many others. Recent affiliations range from work with pianist Marc Schmolling to guest appearances with folk group the Unthanks.
Marc Muellbauer was previously a member of new music ensemble United Berlin, playing Ligeti, Berg, Schoenberg and Webern and giving premieres of new compositions. His own band Kaleidoscope has explored the nexus of modern jazz and contemporary composition. He also plays old and new music with the trio Wood and Steel with Dobro player Christian Kögel and Roland Neffe on vibes and marimba.
Heinrich Köbberling plays with Aki Takase’s Quintet and Ernie Watts’s Quartet Europe when not on the road with Hülsmann or teaching drums in Leipzig.
1. Mack the Knife (Bertolt Brecht / Kurt Weill) 04:30
2. Alabama Song (Kurt Weill) 04:06
3. Your Technique (Ann Ronell / Kurt Weill) 04:52
4. September Song (Maxwell Anderson / Kurt Weill) 06:49
5. This is New (Ira Gershwin / Kurt Weill) 05:31
6. River Chanty (Kurt Weill) 04:48
7. A Clear Midnight (Julia Hülsmann / Walt Whitman) 05:46
8. A Noisless Patient Spider (Julia Hülsmann / Walt Whitman) 07:03
9. Beat! Beat! Drums! (Julia Hülsmann / Walt Whitman) 04:18
10. Little Tin God (Maxwell Anderson / Kurt Weill) 06:37
11. Speak Low (Ogden Nash) 08:50
12. Great Big Sky (Langston Hughes / Kurt Weill) 04:46
Julia Hülsmann: piano
Theo Bleckmann: vocals
Tom Arthurs: trumpet, flugelhorn
Marc Muellbauer: double bass
Heinrich Köbberling: drums
Recorded June 2014 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
The great German-gone-American composer/ songwriter Kurt Weill has exerted—and continues to exert—a broad influence on various cultural corners, from his home turf of musical theater to the classical realm and certainly jazz, via contributions to the standards canon and his jazz-friendly harmonic daring. But new visions are abuzz in the project called A Clear Midnight: Kurt Weill and America, premiered at the 2013 Kurt Weill Festival in the composer’s hometown of Dessau, and preserved on this fine, sonically embracing ECM recording. In some fresh and uniquely moving way, the sensitive German pianist Julia Hülsmann’s approach to Weill—as source and influence— is a blissful blending of several different stylistic touch points, along with an added attraction: At the risk of stoking an incomplete stereotype, this is Weill through the filter of an ethereal ECM sensibility, and a sublime one at that. Vocalist Theo Bleckmann, a rare singer who moves across boundaries of theater, new music and jazz, is the ideal foil for her project, bringing clarity and elasticity to the task of realizing these introspective Weill renditions. It starts, logically, with the stage-setting version of the albums opener, “Mack The Knife.” Slow and reflective, this “Mack” runs against the typical, salty brash type we associate with the tune. The reinventing spirit continues with the soft-edged “Alabama Song” (with tasteful trumpeter/flugelhornist Tom Arthurs playing the instrumental “vocalist” role, as he does elsewhere) and the loose-jointed, re-harmonized read on “Speak Low” reshapes that beloved standard, while “September Song” is almost a straight ballad.
Arrangement duties are inventively and introspectively taken on by Hülsmann and bassist Marc Muellbauer (who also works supply with drummer Heinrich Köbberling in the understated rhythm section). Keeping the overall integrity of the 12-part song set, the pianist refrains from excessive improvisational action, thought demonstrating her expressive fluency in the longest, strongest piano solo, on “A Clear Midnight,” and shifts into an abstract, outside zone amidst “Little Tin God.” Her compositional and text-setting gifts, detectably colored by Weill’s influence, on treatments of Walt Whitman poems, from the album’s most rhythmically juiced piece, “Beat! Beat! Drums!” to the hauntingly, coolly beautiful title track, with Bleckmann intoning a few enigmatically placed notes in the leader’s finely crafted, misty melancholic ambience.
Weill has the last musical word, setting Langston Hughes’ elegant words, on “Great Big Sky,” a cautiously optimistic end game to Hülsmann’s glorious and newly illuminating visit to Weill’s world.
Josef Woodard (DownBeat)