Sunday, March 18, 2012

Singers of Stories (Part 1)

Over the past decade, vocalist Theo Bleckmann has recorded and performed music by such diverse composers as Charles Ives, Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, jazz and Broadway standards and his own highly original pieces.  

His latest project is "Hello Earth: The Music of Kate Bush" (Winter & Winter) - Ms. Bush first came to critical notice in her native Great Britain in 1978 and has had a long, varied, career.  By the release of "The Red Shoes" in 1993, Ms. Bush was already moving out of the public eye.  Her next CD, "Aerial", did not come out until 2005.

Bleckmann (electronics, toy piano, percussion) takes 14 of her compositions, most from her earlier recordings, and manages to make them his own.  With a splendid band that features John Hollenbeck (drums, percussion, voice), Skulli Sverrisson (bass, voice), Henry Hey (keyboards, voice) and the versatile Caleb Burnhans (electric violin, voice), he finds the heart in Ms. Bush's poetry.  Three are moments of near-silence, when the words cause a chill - "The Man With the Child In His Eyes" and "All the Love" cut right to one's soul, the former with its soul music feel and latter with the plaintive repetition of the title at the end of the chorus. "This Woman's Work", a touching song about the pain of child-birth and how that changes everything about a relationship  - yet there is also a sorrowful section that makes it seem someone is quite ill.  What a sonic other-worldliness inhabits "Hello Earth", the quiet yet intensely dark violin and the whispered vocals pulling one close to the speakers. 

The anti-war "Army Dreamers" tells the story of dead young soldier, the irony of the piece being the jaunty whistling, bouncy bass lines and hand percussion. The pinkish reading of "Violin" is the hardest rocker in the program (sounding not unlike early Elvis Costello) and is a feature for Burhan's fiery electric violin. Hollenbeck's martial drums lead the way on "Cloudbusting", buoyed by Sverrisson's thick bass tones.

Theo Bleckmann is a pure singer with few affectations. He will, at times, manipulate his voice with electronics but he never buries the lyrics under excess.  After 2 or 3 listens, one can really appreciate the interactions of the vocalist with the musicians;  they, too, avoid excess.  Hey, in particular, is sharp in the way he frames Bleckmann's voice on many of the tracks. "Hello Earth" is heartfelt and real, a tribute to the songs of Kate Bush in how, even in their most fanciful flights, these songs are emotionally strong.  For more information, go to

Composer-arranger-pianist-vocalist Kyoko Kitamura has created a fanciful and original solo recording, calling it "Armadillo In Sunset Park" and releasing it as a digital download through various outlets (if you're in the New York City area, a physical CD can be purchased at Downtown Music Gallery, 13 Monroe Street.)  Her voice and compositions can be heard on works by Jamie Baum, Taylor Ho Bynum and in the cooperative ensemble ok|ok with reed player Michael McGinnis. 

According to her liner notes, the program is "a musical audio book of strange (but mostly true) stories."  "Strange?" Yes, and, at times, humorous as well.  "Zombie Song" follows a story line in which the narrator cuts her finger with a sharp knife and sees no blood, leading her to surmise that she's gone over to the other side.  "Charlie Brown's Wandering Eye" pairs 2 cartoon character, the schlemiel in the title and Garfield the Cat. The latter scratches the former, causing one of his eyes to go on its own journey (which includes a race.)  Ms. Kitamura includes a fine variation of Vince Guaraldi's music for the underpinning.  The story is goofy and fun

Many of the pieces were composed for Mark Lamb Dance, a New York City-based troupe. One can hear how the rhythms in the songs and melodies could work with movement.  There is the graceful "Densha Song", with Japanese lyrics and flowing rhythm.  A whirling piano line powers "Parasite", slowly turning and moving like a kite in a windy sky.  Ms. Kitomura works for Professor Anthony Braxton's Tri-Centric Foundation and is one of the vocalists on his 4-CD "Trillium E" project.  She has a wonderful range, making her voice rise to high notes effortlessly.  Noises can give way to shrieks which lead to softly delivered vocals to wordless wails - all that (and more) happens on "Crossing", the unsettling work that closes the program.

In a little under 31 minutes, Kyoko Kitamura creates a wondrous, if somewhat altered, world with just her voice and piano (with occasional electronics and vocal overdubs.) Playful and serious, this music insinuates itself into your mind and leaves one wanting more.  For more information, go to

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