At WSJ on the Eivind Opsvik disc

‘Overseas V’ Review: A Norwegian’s Vintage New York Sounds

Eivind Opsvik’s new release takes its cues from the punk funk era

Eivind Opsvik performing in 2015; his latest album, ‘Overseas V,’ is out Friday.

Eivind Opsvik performing in 2015; his latest album, ‘Overseas V,’ is out Friday. Photo: Bernd Thissen/DPA/Zuma Press

In 1998, the bassist and composer Eivind Opsvik emigrated from his native Oslo to New York and immediately immersed himself in its jazz scene, working with many top artists as a sideman and as a leader on several well-received recordings. In much of his work, he seemed to be at the center of postmillennial jazz. On his latest release “Overseas V” (Loyal, March 17 release), he dotes on a vintage phase of New York music, the late ’70s and early ’80s.

The boisterous yet concise music on Mr. Opsvik’s latest recording takes its cues from the punk funk era, when the daring virtuosity of the music heard in jazz lofts both in SoHo and at the Tin Palace, a club on the Bowery just a few doors north of CBGB, combined with the frenetic energy of the punk rock and local funk scenes that were headquartered at nearby venues. It was a short lived scene that gave rise to groups like James Blood Ulmer’s Music Revelation Ensemble, Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society, Material and several solo projects by Bill Laswell.

“Overseas V” offers much more than a revival of an obscure, eclectic phase of Gotham’s musical history. The richly textured, intricately woven music features a quintet with Mr. Opsvik, saxophonist Tony Malaby, pianist Jacob Sacks, guitarist Brandon Seabrook and drummer Kenny Wollesen, and it displays many contemporary traits. For instance, Mr. Malaby often plays short staccato riffs in tandem with Mr. Seabrook’s scratchy guitar licks and Mr. Wollesen’s punchy rhythms. Rather than position the saxophone in the usual role as the lead voice within the group, Mr. Malaby is often a component of the rhythms. The music feels almost like pop songs; none of the recording’s nine tracks is more than six minutes and only three are more than five. There is a vibrant, intense rhythmic edge to this music that gives it urgency. It doesn’t draw you to it; instead, it rushes out of the speakers.

The contrast between the current recording and his 2012 release with this group, “Overseas IV” (Loyal), provides an excellent measure of Mr. Opsvik’s range. “IV” featured the same personnel and offered more serene and introspective music. That recording was inspired by the Sofia Coppola movie “Marie Antoinette.” Mr Opsvik, who is 43, said the inspiration for the new recording came in part from the shorter periods of attention that result from fatherhood and one track even resulted from jamming on a toy piano while Iris, his toddler daughter, played shaker. Mr.Seabrook’s wife, Anais Blondet, created a video for one of the best tunes on the recording, “Brraps!,” with the bassist playing a disheveled mad professor. In the press release for the recording, he says, “I think modern jazz can get a bit too serious and intellectual at times—so whether it’s catchy tunes or a music video, I think it can lighten up.”

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Bullish 03.16.17: Fred Must Go

Bullish 03.16.17:  Fred Must Go

Bullish is an attempt to parse the narrative of the Chicago Bulls season.  In most seasons, it’s pretty obvious (recently the narrative centered on the health and ability of Derrick Rose), this season is much more complicated.  I used to write about NBA for the New York Sun and The Root with occasional contributions to Slate and the Wall Street Journal.  I found then that distance was often an asset, so while I’d rather patrol the sideline and press box of the United Center, there’s insight to be had from the vantage point of my tiny Manhattan apartment too.

Over the weekend, even before the debacle in Boston and well before news of Dwyane Wade’s season ending elbow injury broke, I began to conclude that it was time for the Fred Hoiberg Ewas time for the Fred Hoiberg eWade’xperiment to end.  Lots of valid arguments can be made that he’s not the primary reason that the Bulls are a mess, and I’m under little illusion that his departure will make a substantial long term difference in the franchise, but it’s time for him to go and the reason is simple.  After a season and three quarters, it has become abundantly obvious that he isn’t going to lead an NBA team to the Finals.

And if your coach isn’t going to get your team to the promised land or at least moving in that direction, then he shouldn’t be your team’s coach.

But then the excellent scribes at BlogaBull.com beat me to do with this excellent missive.  That article included this fine piece on the Bulls malaise from Yahoo!

Yes, the front office duo of Gar Forman and John Paxson are the primary culprits for the mess that is on the hardwood floor at the United Center (and gee, the contrast between the Bulls their stadium-mates, the Chicago Blackhawks has probably never been greater), but Hoiberg isn’t helping and shows no sign of getting it.  His rotations are a mess.  His playing time allocations look like they were drawn from a hat at the beginning of each game.  The Bulls are tactically weak, and they fail to adjust to other team’s halftime adjustments.  Lastly there’s no direction or discipline on the team.

Hoiberg was hired two summers ago after a coaching search that included well, no one else.  It was old school Chicago ward politics at its best.  He was pals with Forman and Paxson and was handed a plum job.  The hiring screamed for the institution of a Rooney Rule in the NBA, though it’s hard to argue that GarPax would have hired oh say, Tyronn Lue or David Fizdale were they candidates.

This summer the Bulls need to engage in a real coaching search by interviewing lead assistants with several successful NBA franchises (please no more NCAA coaches; Brad Stevens notwithstanding, Hoiberg is the latest in a long line of college coaches who failed in the pros).  There needs to be transparency and rigor.  I’m unconvinced that GarPax will lead the Bulls to an NBA Finals either and maybe their ineptitude in a high profile search will move them closer to the door.

Meanwhile, I’m in favoring of firing Hoiberg now.  Yeah, I know that there are only 14 games left in the season and I’m aware that losses the Bulls would incur under Hoiberg might improve their draft position, but I think an interim coach, perhaps Jim Boylen who coached with San Antonio, might begin to implement some structure and put the Bulls many young players on the path to steady, consistent development.  It’s clear that Hoiberg won’t do that, and that’s another reason he needs to go.

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SB Nation Link http://www.blogabull.com/2017/3/15/14922066/bulls-fire-fred-hoiberg-at-least-they-should

Yahoo! Link http://sports.yahoo.com/news/after-five-straight-losses-dwyane-wade-would-like-bulls-upper-management-to-answer-questions-190900795.html

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Bullish 03.02.17: What If

Bullish 03.02.17: The Ultimate NBA Counterfactual

Bullish is an attempt to parse the narrative of the Chicago Bulls season.  In most seasons, it’s pretty obvious (recently the narrative centered on the health and ability of Derrick Rose), this season is much more complicated.  I used to write about NBA for the New York Sun and The Root.  I found then that distance was often an asset, so while I’d rather patrol the sideline and press box of the United Center, there’s insight to be had from the vantage point of my tiny Manhattan apartment too.

The Chicago Bulls are at the center of two of the NBA’s biggest counterfactuals.  One is well known: what if in the 1984 draft, the Portland Trail Blazers took Michael Jordan instead of Sam Bowie with the second pick.  League history would be very different (for the record, those Bulls were well stocked with bigs so I think they would have taken Charles Barkley with their pick if Jordan was off the board), but the circumstances behind that moment warrant their own dispatch.  Let’s look at what happened five years earlier in April 1979.

In the 1979 draft, there was one incandescent talent, Magic Johnson.  Like 1984, this was a pre-lottery draft.  It was in fact, pre-draft mania too.  If the answer is Bob Lanier, Austin Carr, LaRue Martin, Bill Walton, David Thompson, John Lucas, Kent Benson, and Mychal Thompson, then the question Alex is “who were the NBA first overall picks in the ‘70s before Magic.  There are three Hall of Famers and only one Bargnani level bust (Martin), but it’s easy to see why the draft wasn’t looked at as a wellspring of transformational talent the way it is now.  No one was tanking to be able draft Austin Carr, and in fact, it wasn’t uncommon for teams to trade their first round pick without condition for veteran talent; whether outright or as compensation for free agent signings.  This is how the Lakers, 45-37 in 1978-’79 wound up vying for the first round pick; they had been awarded it (as well as a 1977 first rounder and a 1980 second rounder) when Gail Goodrich signed with the New Orleans Jazz in 1976.  Goodrich was 33 at the time of the deal and signing 33 year old shooting guards is rarely a good roster construction strategy and this one blew up in the Jazz’s face.  By 1978-’79, the team slumped to 26-56, the worst record in the league, and they were preparing to move to their current home in Salt Lake City.

Owning the pick of the team with the worst record didn’t guarantee the Lakers the first pick, rather it qualified them for a coin flip with the team that suffered the worst record in the other conference.  At the time New Orleans was in the Eastern Conference and the Chicago Bulls were in the West (NBA geography was a little weird at the time.  San Antonio and Houston played in the East; Chicago, Indiana and Milwaukee were in the West.    The Bulls that season finished 31-51, at the bottom of their conference, and yes it was a compressed league at that that point, following an era in the early ‘70s, following expansion where the best teams routinely won 65 games, in 1979 the Association’s best record belonged to the 54-28 Washington Bullets.

Commissioner Larry O’Brien flipped the coin.  The Bulls GM Rod Thorn called heads.  It was tails.  The Lakers drafted Magic Johnson and won five titles in nine seasons and went to the Finals in two other seasons.  The Bulls chose UCLA power forward David Greenwood and continued their mediocrity until 1984, when Portland passed on Jordan.

But what if the coin came up heads?

The lore on this Is that Johnson would have returned to Michigan State for his junior year, but I doubt that.  Magic was a kid from Lansing Michigan.  Chicago may not have had the glamour of Los Angeles but compared to his roots, there were plenty of bright lights.  Furthermore the Bulls weren’t your usual lottery top of the draft basket case.  Just as the Lakers had Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the Bulls had a Hall of Fame bound center in Artis Gilmore.  Just as the Lakers had a dynamic point guard who could move to shooting guard in Norm Nixon, Bulls backcourt leader Reggie Theus was capable of a similar shift.  The Bulls had a solid spot up shooter in Scott May too.

It seems funny to say 33 years after Jordan’s arrival in the Windy City, but the Bulls desperately lacked for star power.  Other Chicago teams had proudly boasted Hall of Famers and the Bears of that era had NFL’s best player in Walter Payton, but the Bulls who hadn’t existed two decades to that point had all stars but lacked a public face who ranked among the Association’s most elite talents.  It was well within organizational memory that the Bulls had recently advanced to the Western Conference Finals in consecutive years but in 1975, their offense melted down in the fourth quarter against Golden State resulted in a miserable, 83-79 loss. Chicago’s front office would have cracked open the vaults for a player like Magic.  And Magic would have little incentive to return to college.  Phil Hubbard, Michigan State’s other top notch player, was a senior and draft bound.  And Magic liked the uptempo game but the NCAA was still five years from instituting a shot clock.  By contrast in 1978-79, the league average Pace Factor in the NBA was 105.8, substantially faster today’s game where the Golden State Warriors are the league’s most uptempo team at a pace barely into triple digits.  Yeah, if the coin flip came up heads, I think Magic would have been a Bull.

The NBA of the late ‘70s was substantially different from today’s league.  Miami, Dallas, Orlando, Charlotte, Toronto and Memphis were not yet NBA cities; Kansas City, San Diego and Seattle were.  NBA Finals games were typically shown on tape delay after the late, local news.    The three point shot did not exist thus “Downtown Freddie Brown,” a sharpshooter for the Seattle Supersonics had value as a floor spacer for Jack Sikma and Dennis Johnson, but not directly on the scoreboard.

While Magic and Theus would have been NBA’s best backcourt from opening night, it’s far from clear that Johnson’s tenure in Chicago would have been anywhere near as glittered as his run with the Lakers.  For one, Chicago was coached by Jerry Sloan, a former Bulls player, who advocated a slower half court game and often clashed with Theus over his desire to push the tempo.  Secondly, while the Bulls weren’t as Barkley might now say turble, they weren’t good.   Magic arrived to a 47 win Laker team and was the primary reason they won 60 in his rookie season.  A comparable impact on the Bulls results in 44 wins and spot in the middle of the pack in the Western Conference.  However, in Sloan’s second season, the Bulls acquired forward Larry Kenon from the San Antonio Spurs with improved front court play Chicago’s offense soared and their record improved to 45-37, but this was in the much tougher Eastern Conference (in a move of substantial geographic logic, the Pacers, the Bulls and Bucks were moved in the EC while the now Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs were moved into the Western Conference) where three teams, Milwaukee, Boston and Philadelphia all won 60 games.  Magic probably would have put the Bulls in the Eastern elite with those teams.

What happens from there gets murky.  The Bulls failed to sustain their success the following season.  Sloan left.  The team failed to improve markedly under new coach Paul Westhead, who had been forced out by Magic in Los Angeles, so the Bulls tanked and wound up drafting Jordan, the transformational talent that the team had long desired.  The rest as they say…

Obviously, if Magic is a Bull, then Chicago is a perennial playoff team if not a championship contender and Jordan winds up somewhere else, maybe Dallas and the course of league history is substantially altered.  All that from a coin flip.

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I have no idea on the source of this photo.  Step up please if you know

 

 

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The Do Over 06: Injuries

The Do Over 06: Injuries

Is 56 the new 26?  It seems that way for me as my current professional and existential quandaries mirror the ones I faced 30 years ago.  These posts are a series of ponderings trying parse the difference between now and then.

Sorry for the extended break in this series.  In early January, just as I was composing a dispatch on resolutions (my New Year’s resolution was to be more resolved), a flare up of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome struck.  I first suffered from it in 2014 as I finished a madcap, big project for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  I did all the revisions with a splint on my right hand, and often it was in so much pain that my left hand had to handle the whole keyboard.  This was the worst flare up since then. Usually the pain goes away in a coupla days, this time it lasted a coupla weeks and just as I was about to lose the splint I aggravated it and spent another three weeks with a  stump plus fingers as a right appendage.

During this injury phase I noticed my body acting in strange ways.  Some days, I’d reflexively descend the stairs one at a time as if my knees were bothering me.  Or I’d be reluctant to sleep on one side as if my shoulder was in some routine pain (usually from sleeping awkwardly on one side or the other).   I came to realize that I was responding to something much deeper than merely a bit of Carpal Tunnel.  Throughout my 50s, I’ve trundled my way through some chronic lower body issues and the occasional upper body injury, but my reflexes have understood it that what I’ve really done is anger the Omnipotent Forces of Pain and that in response, I curbed all varieties of movement for fear of incurring the wrath of those forces again, even if my self-enfeeblement had little to do with the exact injury I was enduring.

It’s not as if I’m some sort of total stranger to injury.  In my late 20s, I broke my toe kicking a trash can at the store and spent three weeks on a cane, then, in my 30s, I had to be carried out of a step aerobics class after injuring a knee, which resulted in a few weeks of hobbling around.  In both cases I diligently rehabbed and in a few weeks was back at it full tilt.

I don’t know what full tilt means anymore even though I’m only five years removed from a fitness regimen that included two yoga/spinning class doubleheaders each week as well as about 50 miles of urban biking.  However, my latest recognition of how readily my body is kowtowing to pain has aroused a sense of ambition, a “nevertheless she persisted” moment (yeah, my inner athlete is female, it’s a long story) built up inside of me.  As soon as my wrist was healthy enough to hold handlebars and brake on a bicycle, I resumed Citibiking everywhere, even if it was a short distance, it just felt good to be pedaling again.

In some ways, I was set to do good things.   In mid-December, in response to my building’s still unresolved gas crisis (my neighbors and I haven’t had gas to cook with for nine months now), I bought a Foreman Grill and a new Pyrex dish, so that 75% of my meals now consist of lean proteins, steamed veggies, and leafy greens. I became driven to sleep seven to eight hours nightly and drink two to three liters of water daily.

By the time I returned to the gym last week, I received my reward.  I stepped on the scale and I was ten pounds lighter than I was on my last visit around New Year’s Day.  Granted, I have many more pounds to lose before my body resembles the 42 year old that I self -identify as, but the sense of momentum was palpable.  With it came the realization that I needed to permanently reduce the Omnipotent Forces of Pain to a speed bump and not a roadblock.  It was something I’d wanted to accomplish years ago and that I made progress toward that almost subconsciously makes many other ambitions seem more possible.

Even though there’s a medical urgency to lose weight now, it hasn’t usually been my fitness motivation.  I was a brainy kid who wanted to be more physically active, but those avenues weren’t typically open to me as a kid.  I wasn’t good enough to “play” unless I owned the ball.  So when I joined a fitness center to take aerobic classes and then a gym and bought a bike, it felt like an opportunity to enable my body to catch up to my mind.  When my body failed me, I’m sure self-consciously I feared my mind might soon follow.  This episode has made me less fearful of that, and it’s made me more resolved.  Now, maybe I’ll go back to one of my unfulfilled 2016 resolutions like seeing more movies.

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A Beth Orton binge accompanied the composition of this dispatch

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At WSJ on Akua Dixon

‘Akua’s Dance’ by Akua Dixon Review: An Ode to the Cello’s Versatility

On her latest album, the cellist offers a wide range of originals, jazz repertoire and pop tunes.

Akua Dixon

Akua Dixon Photo: James Rich

For decades, the cello has been on the fringes of jazz. The outstanding bassists, Oscar Pettiford and Ron Carter, occasionally recorded on the instrument, and cellists like Abdul Wadud,Diedre Murray and Fred Lonberg-Holm have been cornerstones of avant garde recordings and groups. Akua Dixon has forged a solid career playing and arranging string sections and with her own innovative recordings. Her latest, “Akua’s Dance,” out Friday on her own Akua’s Music imprint, features unique ensembles and stunning arrangements on a wide range of originals, jazz repertoire and pop tunes.

On several tracks for this recording, Ms. Dixon swaps out her cello for a baritone violin, a similar instrument with a slightly larger body and a deeper, richer tone. On the first track, the briskly paced original “I Dream a Dream,” her sound is reminiscent of the trombone lines heard in the Juan Tizol/Duke Ellington classic “Caravan.” The resemblance may not be coincidental; Ms. Dixon wants her instruments to be heard as natural lead voices in a conventional jazz ensemble. Her band features guitarist Freddie Bryant, bassist Kenny Davis and drummer Victor Lewis, with guest appearances by guitarist Russell Malone and by Mr. Carter, with whom Ms. Dixon performed on the 1972 Archie Shepp recording “The Cry of My People” (Impulse!).

Ms. Dixon’s gambits are among the recording’s highlights. “The Sweetest Taboo,” which was a pop hit for Sade in 1985-86, is played straightforwardly by the ensemble here—capturing its slinky vibe until Ms. Dixon’s captivating solo elevates the tune, taking it into new dimensions. Ms. Dixon sings the lead on Abbey Lincoln’s plaintive “Throw It Away,” and her tone broadens the defiant and reassuring words. Her tracks on cello with Mr. Carter on bass are telling. Ms. Dixon’s lines alternate from puckish and crisp to gentle elegance, providing a distinctive contrast to Mr. Carter’s cashmere tones.

Ms. Dixon, who is 68, has ruminated about doing recordings like this for decades. She cites playing with James Brown at the Apollo Theater and as a founding member of the Max Roach Double Quartet as helping her realize that the cello could adapt to jazz phrasing and should be a lead voice. She led Quartette Indigo, a string quartet, but found herself in bass-like roles in that ensemble. With this recording, Ms. Dixon joins the ranks of Jane Scarpantoni in rock and Maya Beiser in classical music—performers who have expanded the range of their instrument and made an indelible mark on their genres. “Akua’s Dance” will show younger cellists the possibilities for their instrument in jazz.

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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Bullish 02.12.17: Are Chicago Sports Fans Spoiled?

Bullish is an attempt to parse the narrative of the Chicago Bulls season.  In most seasons, it’s pretty obvious (recently the narrative centered on the health and ability of Derrick Rose), this season is much more complicated.  I used to write about NBA for the New York Sun and The Root.  I found then that distance was often an asset, so while I’d rather patrol the sideline and press box of the United Center, there’s insight to be had from the vantage point of my tiny Manhattan apartment too.

                When I was growing up, roughly the md-late ‘60s until the early ‘80s, it seemed like the Gods of the sporting world were playing some sort of cruel joke on Chicago and the fans of its sports teams.  Teams in the other major metropolises, Los Angeles and New York, won titles, often in dashing fashion.  Teams in other major Midwestern cities like Detroit, St. Louis and Milwaukee (and by extension Green Bay) won titles.  But all fans of the White Sox, Cubs, Bears, Bulls and Blackhawks knew was disappointment and often bitter ones.   Only the 1971 and ‘73 Blackhawks made it to a Finals.  The White Sox of 1967, the Cubs of 1969 and ’73 and the Bulls of ’73 and ’75 bowed out earlier and in far more ignominious fashion.

That’s what makes the current Chicago sports scene such a jarring delight.  The Cubs are World Series Champions and seem poised to spend the next several seasons at the forefront of the championship conversation.  The Blackhawks have won three titles since 2010 and the most dominant sports team of the decade.  Three of the Hawks four non-title seasons have ended in one goal losses in a Game 7.  In other words they are a reasonably good bet to go all the way until they are eliminated.  The Bears and White Sox after tolerating several seasons of mediocrity have finally embarked on full scale rebuilding efforts that during the current phase, talent accumulation has gone really well.

Which brings us to the Bulls, after five years in contention, they were mediocre last season and they are mediocre again this season.  In other words, to borrow Bill James dichotomy, they aren’t selling their fans hopes or wins.   And this situation is in stark contrast to the other four Chicago teams.   It’s created a contentious environment where dust ups turn into major drama.

The drama obscures the fact that the Bulls don’t fit into the conventional cycle of team building.  They are trying to rebuild from the middle, a difficult feat that only among NBA teams only Utah, Houston and Indiana have done particularly well.  The reasons why they have chosen this path is simple: for one the team has a superstar already in Jimmy Butler and he’s still in his prime so why not try to build around him.  Secondly the team is enormously popular.  The Bulls, struggles and drama notwithstanding lead the NBA in attendance and have led the NBA in attendance for seven straight seasons. They have finished first or second in attendance every season since a 23-59 team in ’03-’04 finished third.  That team could bask in the shadow of Michael Jordan and six titles in the ‘90s.  A 23-59 team now has no such luxury.

The Bulls suffer in comparison to the Cubs and Blackhawks as they simply aren’t anywhere near as good.  They suffer in comparison to the Bears and White Sox as the organizational game plan isn’t anywhere near as clear. And they suffer via their own bad free agent signings and poor ability to communicate with the media.

It would have been inconceivable for me to think this 40 years ago, but it’s possible that we’ve reached a moment where Chicago sports fans are spoiled.  Two teams are winning and two teams have clear rebuilds.  It makes the fifth team, the Bulls, look very bad by comparison.

In reality, the current Bulls are well within the tradition of Chicago teams like the Dave Wannstedt era Bears, the early ‘90s Cubs, or just about any White Sox team that didn’t qualify for the postseason.  But all of those teams seem like ancient history now.  The current situation narrows both the window for demonstrating a clear vision and for making progress.  The upcoming trade deadline will demonstrate whether or not the front office gets it.  The odds aren’t good but I certainly never thought I’d see the day where the White Sox would engage a wholesale rebuild.   The Bulls don’t need to do that, but they do need to show attention to the standings and not the bottom line.

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At WSJ on Theo Bleckmann

‘Elegy’ by Theo Bleckmann Review: A Jazz Vocalist for the 21st Century

With his clear, crisp diction and use of digital effects, Theo Bleckmann makes some of the most interesting music in recent history.

Vocalist and composer Theo Bleckmann has been a leader or collaborator on some of the most interesting jazz and new-music projects of the past 25 years. He has clear, crisp diction and can render a lyric poignant during a straightforward reading, but Mr.

Bleckmann is unusually tech savvy and often uses delays and other effects to create an ethereal dreamscape. He has taken vocalese into the 21st century.

Theo Bleckmann’s new album is ‘Elegy.’

Theo Bleckmann’s new album is ‘Elegy.’ Photo: Lynne Harty

Mr. Bleckmann has brought his unique approach to a remarkable range of source material. He has performed albums of Las Vegas standards, Weimar art songs, and songs by art rocker Kate Bush. He collaborated with the electric jazz collective Kneebody for a collection of rearranged music by Charles Ives, and he is a member of the Refuge Trio, which takes its point of departure from the Joni Mitchell song “Refuge of the Roads.” He has been a core member of the Meredith Monk Ensemble for more than 15 years. He brings all of those interests and experiences to his new release, “Elegy” (ECM), out Friday.

“Elegy” is an unusual recording for a performer known for his vocals, as they are not at the center of each tune. Some are instrumentals, and on others Mr. Bleckmann contributes elegant scatting to the work of his stellar band: guitarist Ben Monder, pianist Shai Maestro, bassist Chris Tordini and drummer John Hollenbeck. In the notes to the album, Mr. Bleckmann says that the unifying theme of the new recording is songs about death, but less in mourning than as a meditation on transcendence. For instance, he wrote the lyrics of “To Be Shown to Monks at a Certain Temple” in response to a Zen poem that sees death as a sign to the living to keep moving. Stephen Sondheim’s “Comedy Tonight” is the showstopper of the recording. On it, Mr. Bleckmann slows the tempo to a crawl, accentuating minute differences between the “r” sounds in “familiar” and “peculiar.” In the first verses he’s backed only by restrained play by Mr. Maestro. Mr. Bleckmann gives the song a complete and stunning makeover that showcases his vocal ability. On the other tracks he demonstrates the versatility of vocals within an ensemble.

Photo: ECM

Mr. Bleckmann, who is 50, was born in Dortmund, West Germany, and originally pursued ice-dancing. He was a junior champion before turning his ambitions to music after meeting the stellar jazz vocalist Sheila Jordan at a workshop in Graz, Austria. He moved to New York in 1989. He quickly won acclaim in both jazz and contemporary classical music circles, collaborating with leading lights like Anthony Braxton,Steve Coleman,Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson. He created the alien space language for characters in the film “Men in Black.”

On Feb. 7 Mr. Bleckmann begins a brief tour with his quintet at Jazz Standard in New York. His performances are typically full of charming wit, dazzling technique and unexpected humor. Today’s jazz is often as much about texture as it is about virtuosity, but in Mr. Bleckmann’s music it’s about both.

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